Opinion | Civic engagement isn’t limited to elections

Ava Fisher, Opinions Editor

On Nov. 2, many states and municipalities across the country conducted another Election Day. This “off-year” election, one that offered no presidential or midterm races, appears to be following the trend of most off-year elections: lower turnout.

The 2020 presidential election, conducted a year ago today, boasted the largest turnout in U.S. history, with 158 million Americans casting a vote. These votes represented 66.3% of the eligible voting population, the highest voter participation rate in over a century. Young voters followed this trend, demonstrating an 8-point increase in voting from the 2016 election.

This figure ought to be of great interest to college students and to all who value the mobilization of young people. The 2020 election was a unique experience for young voters. Those in the age range of 18 to 29 consistently demonstrate the lowest voter participation rates of all age groups. 

In the 2016 election, the voter participation rate for young voters was 25 percentage points lower than that of voters over the age of 65. 

Many lawmakers, journalists and voting rights activists have dedicated themselves to figuring out the reasons behind this statistic: Are young people lazy? Apathetic? Busy?

One factor that may explain low civic engagement in young people is the cost of voting itself. Between classes, extracurricular activities and working long hours, students must give up much of their time and money to vote.

While the 2021 election does not yet have complete turnout data, the results so far seem to follow the trend of low participation in off years. Even with the historic achievement of electing its first female and Asian American mayor, Boston demonstrated a turnout rate of only 28.9%.

Lower voter turnout in smaller elections is to be expected. Without the large stakes of a presidential election or the vigorous campaign efforts over Senate control, off-year elections do not attract the same amount of media attention as larger races. However, lower turnout is only exacerbated in youth voters. In a study of 50 mayoral elections in 2016, the average age of voters was 57.

The 2021 off-year elections on Tuesday presented the opportunity to examine why figures such as these exist, and how we, as college students, can combat them. 

Lane McLelland, the director of the Crossroads Civic Engagement Center, recognizes the value of civic engagement among young people. 

“Especially around election season, we can get caught up in thinking that democracy is something that only happens in D.C. or Montgomery or on the news,” McLelland said. “When we think in those terms, it can seem daunting to be civically engaged. However, democracy happens all around us all the time, and it’s up to us to plug into it and get better at it.”

The mobilization of young people, and college students in particular, has power. Young people have the unique ability to assess community issues with fresh perspectives, innovative solutions and an intellectual curiosity to benefit the world around them. The issue in civic engagement among young people isn’t a matter of ability — it’s a matter of action. 

How exactly do we harness this power? How do we encourage young people to vote in elections that appear “inconsequential”? How do we translate our ideas into reality? 

There is no one answer to any of these questions, but the value of mobilizing young people is found in seeking the answers. By consulting a variety of sources and initiating conversations with their peers, young people can begin to embody a spirit of civic engagement. While the concept may appear daunting, it is not limited to any one attitude or action.

Voting is just one aspect of civic engagement. College students can become more civically engaged in every sphere of life, and they must start now. Given college students’ numerous responsibilities and busy schedules, they don’t need to add any involvement. They can instead integrate civic engagement into their daily habits, from the classroom to the computer. 

Young people are uniquely adept at utilizing social media toward activism. By connecting young people of diverse backgrounds and abilities, social media provides a unique platform for young people to gain resources and share their own ideas on social issues. Don’t have the time to attend that city council meeting? Start with one click. Follow a hashtag of a social issue that interests you. Follow your representatives. Maybe, if you’re so inspired, start your own page for a cause you care about. 

Civic engagement also extends to community involvement. For college students, it can be easy to get caught up in classes and activities and forget that a world exists outside of campus. To become invested in the community around you, start by signing up for a volunteer position. If your schedule is too packed, volunteer through a partner organization with the University. Engage in both scholarship and service to gain a better understanding of your community. 

We have countless resources on campus to become civically engaged as well. 

“At Crossroads, we believe civic engagement includes being an active and informed voter. And it also encompasses having intentional, respectful conversations about civic issues, attending community meetings, advocating for policies you care about, and showing up for community events to support one another and build relationships for working together in the future,” McLelland said. “Crossroads Civic Engagement Center works alongside students, faculty, staff and community members to develop the civic values, knowledge and skills we all need to act together for a stronger democratic society.”

Civic engagement isn’t something that can be achieved once and forgotten about; it’s a skill that requires practice. It’s a lifestyle. You can start to become more civically engaged even in small ways. Supplement your driving playlist with a podcast featuring an issue that interests you. However you choose to be engaged is up to you, but by cultivating our own understanding and involvement as individuals, we can begin to form a stronger community. We can utilize the education we gain here at the Capstone in tangible ways and for the benefit of the atmospheres we love.

Questions? Email the Opinions desk at letters@cw.ua.edu.