Reports about turnout for the recent Iraqi elections led me to reflect about experiences last fall in promoting student voting on IU campuses. News reports place Iraqi turnout at about 72 percent. Last fall’s U.S. elections produced the best turnout in a decade among voters 18 to 29, but participation reached only 52 percent.
Some may find comfort in these numbers, but I don’t. We achieved 52 percent youth participation in a highly competitive presidential election after more than $40 million was spent to mobilize the youth vote. When we look at youth participation in mid-term elections—consistently less than 30 percent—the results are more troubling for the health of our democracy.
Universities can and should do much more to transmit the values of democracy and citizenship. How would we do that? A campaign initiated last fall by Bloomington High School South sophomore Allison Lester offers some hints at what might be done. Allison proposed that teachers assign only election-related homework leading up to the election.
The rationale for Allison’s proposal was quite simple: People can learn how to be engaged citizens just like they have learned to be apathetic. Her interest in teaching students how to be active citizens is a goal shared by Indiana’s universities. The leaders of 31 universities in Indiana, including each of IU’s campuses, have signed the Presidents’ Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education.
The declaration pledges that universities take responsibility for helping students “realize the values and skills of our democratic society and their need to claim ownership of it.”
I believe the university community has underestimated the enormity of our challenge of educating for civic responsibility and has been slow to translate the high-minded principles of the President’s Declaration into effective action. It is time we considered more active and deliberate measures.
At the heart of these measures must be curricular changes that reinforce the connectedness of what our students learn to the larger communities and societies of which we are members. Engaging our students has to be the work of the entire university community, not just members of a few academic units such as political science and public affairs. As we know from experience at IU and other universities across the country, English, biology, chemistry, speech, engineering and others have much to contribute to this communal effort.
In addition to the curriculum, we need to look at other ways to reinforce political engagement. These could include:
• Actively promoting voting and attention to public issues as course and co-curricular activities. During the 2004 presidential election, a professor at Drew University made voting mandatory for students in her class. Requiring students to vote may go too far, but faculty need to consider finding appropriate ways to reinforce voting. This could take the form of extra credit, which has been used by some faculty at IU. Jane Eisner, a recent visitor to the Bloomington and Indianapolis campuses, offered other ideas in her book, Taking Back the Vote.
• Find ways to promote political involvement just as we do civic volunteering. In recent years, the promotion of volunteering has become a major, formalized activity on many college campuses, IU among them. IU needs to find ways to honor political and public life as it honors charitable and philanthropic work.
• Liberalize university policies for civic participation. IU presently grants paid time-off for both jury duty and voting in those cases where an employee’s work schedule conflicts with voting hours. I do not believe we extend similar consideration for voting to our students. We need to ask ourselves: What policies can we institute to signal symbolically and literally the importance of political participation? Faculty, staff, and student councils across the university need to have a voice on these issues.
Our democracy is so young that we do not know, for the long term, what a healthy participation rate is. We could wait to see how far political engagement can fall before popular control in our democracy slips away. I subscribe to a different view. We need to embrace the pledges of our leaders and actively campaign for our students to claim ownership of their democratic society.