So why has voter turnout, particularly on elections closer to home, faded? That’s the question furrowing the brows of leaders and causing political scientists to ponder the future of democracy.
Research points to complaints about voter fatigue and voter apathy, reportedly based on “inconvenience” and frustration with “too many” elections about issues and candidates they don't like or understand, while others simply surrender and say, “My vote doesn't matter.” In our on-demand society, there is no app for that.
“I call that the paradox of voting,” said Tyler Young, professor of political science at Collin College referencing the idea that the cost of (or effort) of voting exceeds the benefit and that one’s vote does not impact an election.
“At the end of the day, local government means a lot more to you than the federal government. Barack Obama doesn't determine who the principal of the school is,” Young said.
School districts are governed and mostly funded locally. Transportation –from fixing the pothole on your street and building new highways, tollways or mass transit – is overseen on several levels from the state down. From gun laws to red-light cameras, most edicts are established on the city or state level. Of course, taxes, spending, budget cuts and services – or the lack thereof – are also determined at local levels by city councils, school boards, college boards and every other commission, board, task force, committee and quorum.
Locally, only three percent of registered voters in Collin County voted in the general and special elections last November. That’s 13,227 votes from the 423,312 registered voters in a county with a population of more than 800,000. Included on the ballot that day were 10 state constitutional amendments, propositions in McKinney, Plano and other cities, and seats on various boards and councils. State turnout was five percent in a state of more than 25 million people.
In Plano, a city with a population of about 260,000, a little more than 4,700 voters dictated the passage of three propositions, including increasing city council member terms and providing the city council with the power to appoint judges to the municipal court. Just 1,574 voters in McKinney voted on a proposition expanding city council terms to four years. In a city of 136,000 people, it passed by just 158 votes. A margin of 573 votes determined whether the city of Frisco would revoke a commitment of bond funds for a performing arts center in Collin County.
In the May 2011 general elections, 10 races were decided by 100 or less votes. Seventeen were decided by 200 or less votes. Fifteen races included uncontested candidates.
Clearly, voting does matter, particularly on the state and local levels, whether we choose to participate or not.
Even more tragic is the number of young voters who, in spite of their rights in the 26th amendment, do not vote. Only 16.4 percent of 18-20 - year old Americans reported voting in the last Congressional elections.
“The generation that is in college now will have to live with the decisions made today for many years to come, and those should not be made in absentia,” said Cary A. Israel, district president of Collin College.
That is why the college created the Center for Scholarly and Civic Engagement. The center teaches college students the power of civic activism and ingrains a lifelong commitment to voting. The center hosts voting registration drives, debate watches, candidate forums and partners with MTV for their “Rock the Vote” campaign.
It’s an important time in the student lifecycle because voting is habit forming. According to the Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), “When young people learn the voting process and vote, they are more likely to do so when they are older. So, getting young people to vote early could be key to raising a new generation of voters.”
Collin College also volunteered to open campuses as official polling sites to make it easier for students, employees and members of the community to cast their ballots early on campus and avoid standing in line on election day.“
Voting is the responsibility of the citizen,” said Dr. Michael McConachie, dean of communication, humanities and social and behavioral science sat Preston Ridge Campus in Frisco. “I always tell my classes that they've been raised with the idea that if you don't vote, you can't complain. Your complaining is a freedom of speech. But I follow up with the idea that if you do complain, doesn't it carry more weight if you vote? When candidates are winning with a majority of the vote most of the time, the conclusion is that people are satisfied with the job they are doing.”
The impact of elections and elected officials on students and higher education itself is colossal. First and foremost, funding decisions are in the hands of federal and state elected officials. Whether in terms of state appropriation or Pell Grants, the cost of higher education continues to headline any rhetoric concerning candidates’ stance on colleges and universities.
“Higher education opportunity is going to be a very big issue in the fall campaign both for the presidential and localized levels of government,” said David Baime, vice president for government relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. “College has become a higher and higher priority for Americans. People want to know how candidates look at this issue. College students and their ability to access and complete college are imminently linked to what the federal government does. A lot of broader budget issues – taxes, entitlements, Medicare, Medicaid, tax cuts, etc. – impact the funding available for college students. There’s one federal government and one federal budget. The truth of the matter is, there’s not a lot of money going directly to undergraduate institutions.”
Legislation exists that would cut about $170 million in Pell Grants in the next decade, the largest source of federal financial aid.
“About 10 million students are getting Pell Grants, and more students take out loans every year. I think for self-interest, if nothing else, this election season is pretty darn important for college students,” Baime said.
In 2011-12, $24.4 million in Pell Grants were awarded to Collin College students. However, when Pell Grants disappear, students turn to loans instead. Nationwide, student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the nationwide total automobile loan balance is $730 million. The total credit card balance is $693 million. The total student loan balance is $870 million, and about 40 percent of all student loan debt is owed by Americans under the age of 30.
However, money is just the tip of the civic engagement iceberg. Recent decisions made in Austin that tie directly to life on campus in Collin County range from whether to allow concealed handguns on campuses, which failed, to a law requiring all new college or university students to get a meningitis vaccination before registering for class, which passed.
Ironically, the movement to lower the voting age to 18 evolved after the era of 1960s campus activism leading up to the Vietnam War. Young Americans argued that if they were old enough to be drafted and sent into combat overseas at 18, then they were mature enough to vote. Today, members of the military and their spouses vote at much higher rates than the general public, but 18-year-olds do not.
“Active-duty troops and senior citizens vote for a reason—because they know they have ‘skin in the game.’ We all do, and there are too many reasons to let an election pass without voicing our opinions on public policy,”said President Israel. “Collin College has the lowest tuition in the state of Texas, but nearly 26,000 students applied for financial aid. There are 53,000 students annually at Collin College, and they stand to be a powerful voice at the poll. Campus activism may have changed since the 60s and 70s, but students and our communities are no less committed to what is right.”
The act of voting – and voting thoughtfully – is the most basic tenet of civic engagement. A broad swath of informed and motivated citizens is the catalyst for a government by and for the people.
For information about the upcoming elections, polling places and more, visit www.co.collin.tx.us/elections. For more information about the Center forScholarly and Civic Engagement, visit www.collin.edu/academics/csce.