Midterm elections for Congress, the Governor in New York and the Senate in several states are coming up within the next weeks, but the interest and participation among millennials, including Stony Brook students, appears to be unnecessarily low. A CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) poll that was released as part of report from earlier this year listed the most common reason for not voting among 18-29 year olds. They were “too busy” or had “conflicting work.” That is absurd and unacceptable.
I had the opportunity this past week to attend the Tim Bishop rally, featuring President Bill Clinton, and the congressional debate between Bishop and his two-time opponent, Sen. Lee Zeldin. Both were interesting, entertaining and informative events and both took place in the Staller Center on the main stage.
Although they were housed in the same venue only five days apart, the difference in audience was stark. The Bishop rally packed the 1,050 seat theater. The Bishop-Zeldin debate did not. By my estimate there were at most 400 people there, with maybe only 100 being students who were not associated with College Republicans, College Democrats, student media, or with Stony Brook Votes, the bipartisan student activist group who organized the debate as part of their efforts to educate and promote voting among the student body. 100 students. Maybe. That is utterly abysmal if we really want to make a change, Stony Brook. We could do better.
There are several reasons why the total attendance for the Bishop-Zeldin debate was less than half that of the Bishop rally and that the student attendance was less than one-seventh of the attendance at the Bishop rally (700 student tickets were given away for the Bishop rally). The most obvious one was the presence of Clinton at the rally. If a former president ever fails to pack the house, it would be an anomaly. The celebrity Clinton brought with him with his arrival to campus understandably would draw attention. Bishop and Zeldin, even together, would be unable to rival that. I get it.
But, that only explains why the Bishop rally was packed, not why the Bishop-Zeldin debate was not.
In 2013, there were 6,624 students enrolled at Stony Brook University from Suffolk County, according to the Office of Campus Residences. With the influx of freshmen this year, I have no doubt that number has stayed largely unchanged. The 1st congressional district, the representation of which Zeldin and Bishop are competing for, contains roughly 720,000 of Suffolk County’s 1,493,350 residents, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. For our purposes, we will say half of Suffolk County will be represented in the United States House of Representatives by the winner of this upcoming Congressional election. Therefore, I think it is fair to say that roughly half of the aforementioned 6,624 students enrolled at SBU from Suffolk County will be represented by the winner of this election. Those are 3,312 students.
100 is 3.019 percent of 3,312. At the most, three percent of potential 1st congressional district voters on campus were in attendance at Monday’s debate. And that is assuming every single student that was there is from the part of Suffolk County represented by the winner of Bishop and Zeldin’s competition, which is highly unlikely.
This low attendance at the Bishop-Zeldin event is reflected, albeit not as extremely, in Stony Brook’s student body’s voting record and that of millennials in general. The U.S. Census Bureau has reported that in 2012, a presidential election year, only 38 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted. That is 25 percentage points less than our parents’ generation and 11 percentage points lower than those in the 25-to-44-year-old range.
There are an estimated 31.5 million 18-to-24-year-olds in the United States. Why are only a third of us voting? According to Michael Burns of the Campus Vote Project, in 2010, a non-presidential election year, only 26 percent of college students voted. At Stony Brook, a frustratingly low number of students (1.6 percent of registered voters) voted in the off-year election in 2009, after 80 percent of registered voters went to the polling station in 2008 (which was still a decline from the 96 percent of registered voters who voted in 2004). In 2010, in a midterm and gubernatorial election for New York, only 483 votes were cast on Stony Brook’s campus.
I urge you to change these trends and turn around Stony Brook’s poor reputation for voting, particularly during non-presidential cycles. The millennial voting bloc is more important than it is allowing itself to be. We are too often discounted by those seeking office because the youth vote so rarely turns out in strength. Our interests are just as important as that of our parents and grandparents. Too often I hear complaints that there are too many old white men running our country. There is a way to fix this and other problems you see in our government. It is rather simple and something all Americans can and should do.
It is called voting.
No matter what party you identify with, what ideology you believe in, what issues matter to you, or whether your vote is one of support or protest, I ask you to vote next Tuesday, Nov. 4. For local voters, polls will be open at the Student Activities Center from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.