A politically-minded group of students attended PIRG’s “Why Vote?” lecture Wednesday evening. The audience listened to University of Connecticut professor of political science Thomas Hayes speak about the importance of political participation among young people and afterwards engaged in a question and answer session with him.
Hayes discussed how a small group of people can make big changes, noting that the American political system favors organized groups that care intensely about their causes.
“If you look through American history, or just history in general, participation by a really small group of people can have really large effects on elections, on outcomes of policy and representation in the legislature,” Hayes said.
The professor talked about young people’s important role in politics. From 2014 to 2018, there was an increase of 21% in college student voter turnout, and this group is becoming critical in swaying elections. Young people have different preferences than older generations, Hayes said, so it’s in their best interest to express their choices in their vote.
Students found Hayes’ remarks on young people’s electoral influence empowering.
“I just really liked how he focused it on young people,” Tiffany D’Andrea, a seventh-semester math and economics double major, said. “He didn’t just say, ‘Yeah, it’s important to vote, to participate in democracy.’ … It encouraged me more to vote.”
Whereas many of the students present were motivated to take part in the political process, Hayes said others may be reluctant to participate in politics because doing so can be complicated, corrupt, stressful and polarized. Many citizens feel societal problems are insurmountable when that is not really the case. Hayes reminded his audience that just because a problem is challenging, doesn’t mean it’s unsolvable.
A large portion of voters also feel they have low political efficacy, that their vote doesn’t really matter. Hayes dispelled this myth by saying dedicated groups can and have changed policy on a number of occasions. Examples include women’s suffrage and marriage equality.
“Difficult isn’t the same as impossible,” Hayes said. “Change does happen, just when it happens, it comes with large amounts of people and social movements putting a lot of pressure on institutions and elected officials.”
Hayes said an individual’s vote does matter and displayed a graphic illustrating how a few people out of about 324 million Americans decide the presidential candidates. According to Hayes, one-third of the American population is ineligible to vote because they are children, felons or non-citizens. Another third of the population is eligible voters who simply don’t vote. About 73 million Americans vote only in general elections, and 60 million vote in both primaries and general elections. These 60 million are the voters who determine the major candidates in an election.
“[I liked] the graphic he showed, how really a small portion of voters can have, like, a huge difference on your outcome,” Elizabeth Turano, a seventh-semester computer science major, said. “Because like, when you think about it, you’re just like, ‘I’m one person, and there’s millions and millions of people voting, so what’s the point?’ Then he showed us really only this many people matter.”
Hayes concluded his presentation with a quote from historian Howard Zinn about the need for citizens’ continued participation in democracy. He also reiterated Ralph Nader’s (the founder of PIRG, in fact) quote, “If you don’t get turned on to politics, politics will turn on you.”
“I really think that if you pay a little bit of attention to politics, you’ll understand that if you’re not paying attention, you’re not voting and participating, other groups are,” Hayes said. “And oftentimes, they don’t have your same preferences, and they don’t have your same view on the world, so they’re going to be setting the agenda and determining policy.”
Stephanie Santillo is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.