As the Nov. 6 Election Day approaches, campus political groups have been working to ignite a democratic spark in the student body. Given the University’s reputation as an activist campus, some of the students who are working the hardest for student political engagement expressed their disappointment with the level of student interest during an election cycle that includes a close presidential contest as well as close senatorial races.
“There’s a sense that reading the news and watching the debates constitute political engagement,” Wesleyan Democrats (WesDems) president Michael Linden ’15 said. “But there’s more to do.”
Linden said that he perceives a sense of apathy on the part of college students in general and in University students in particular.
“Disillusionment of college students [with the political process] stems from a general sense that their vote doesn’t matter,” he said. “Even though their vote is probably not going to be the deciding vote, exercising it is still a meaningful act of civic engagement.”
In response to the perceived apathy, the WesDems have spent most of the last six weeks conducting a series of “dorm storms,” mostly in freshman housing. Linden said those efforts netted between 100 and 200 new student voter registrations in Middletown.
Linden said his organization focused its voter registration drive on Connecticut residents and out-of-state students who had never registered in their home states.
“Student-to-student outreach is very effective,” he said.
Linden noted that such outreach could be critical in Connecticut, where there is a competitive Senate race between Democratic Representative of the 5th Congressional District Chris Murphy and the Republican candidate former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon, who ran against Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal in the 2010 election.
“I understand being disillusioned with Obama, but what the gridlock in Washington has taught us is that down ballot races have a real impact,” Linden said. “While I think a lot of students say, ‘The two-party system isn’t for me,’ it’s a reality, and there’s a very clear dichotomy between the two parties.”
Wesleyan for Warren campus organizer Sam Ebb ’13 agrees. His group has rallied students in support of Democrat Elizabeth Warren, who is challenging Republican incumbent Scott Brown in the Massachusetts senatorial contest.
Ebb said he believes Warren’s positions resonate with the progressive University student body. He cited the Harvard professor’s economic policies and her role in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for the Obama administration.
“Also, Brown’s co-sponsorship of the Blunt Amendment and vote against equal pay for equal work should be big sticking points for members of the Wesleyan community,” Ebb said.
During this semester, the 15-20 students actively involved in the Wesleyan for Warren organization—including its six interns, some of whom had worked for the campaign during the summer—conducted an absentee ballot drive and ran weekly phone banks to connect with undecided and independent voters in Massachusetts. Several of the core members also spent a few weekends canvassing in Worcester, Mass., for their candidate.
According to Ebb, the organization also supported WesDems’ efforts on behalf of Connecticut candidate Murphy.
“Most people at Wesleyan are going to support Obama and Murphy,” Linden said. “It’s just a matter of whether they’re going to get out and vote.”
Democracy Matters, a non-partisan national student organization, emphasizes college student participation in elections. President of the University’s chapter of Democracy Matters Alyssa Bonneau ’14 expressed support for the need to encourage even politically astute students to exercise the franchise.
“You come to Wesleyan and have expectations for an activist campus, but we’re not as politically active as people think we are,” Bonneau said. “Compared to other places, people do intend to vote.”
Bonneau said that, while her group is very small, it has been working with the WesDems to urge students to make a plan to vote.
“The most important thing is to create an atmosphere of excitement and to try to remind people that this is an historic event,” she said.
As part of its get-out-the-vote effort, Democracy Matters has arranged for free coffee for any student who brings in a mug to the Red and Black Café and presents hir voting sticker.
The recently founded Students for a Free Society has chosen not to endorse any political candidate, nor has it engaged in any election campaigning.
“Students for a Free Society has attracted people who, for the most part, reject the liberal-conservative dichotomy,” said the group’s founder and president Charlie Smith ’15.
According to Smith, the new group is composed of libertarians, anarchists, conservatives, communists, and left-wingers.
“Many people feel disillusioned with the two main parties and generally tend to be skeptical of government,” Smith said. “Some people in the group may not vote because they don’t want to have to pick the lesser of two evils. We would rather try to educate people and change their views than ask them to make a vote that isn’t necessarily an educated one.”
Monica Sheridan ’15, a former member of Wesleyan Republicans, said she is not interested in resurrecting the group, which is now listed as inactive on the Wesleyan Student Assembly webpage. She described most campus Republicans as fiscal conservatives with generally libertarian views on social issues who can be integrated into the new Students for a Free Society.
In contrast to 2011, when University students voted at five different polling sites, this year students registered at their campus address will vote at one of two polling stations. Because of redistricting, the vast majority will vote at the senior center located across from Broad Street Books, and those living north of Washington Street will vote at the Macdonough Elementary School. Shuttles will ferry students from Usdan to the two polling sites every 10 minutes on Election Day, Nov. 6.