'Get your a** out there and make a difference'

Fighting political apathy at Duke

In 2008, when the youth vote helped turn North Carolina blue, only 36 percent of Duke students cast ballots.

Four years later, Duke was ranked one of the top five most politically apathetic colleges in the country, according to The Huffington Post. The other schools at the top of the list included the College of the Ozarks in Missouri, Ohio Northern University and the University of Scranton. This apathy may signal a stark difference between feeling and action at Duke—even in the landmark 2008 election.

“It’s kind of hard for me to fathom how that could have been,” said President Richard Brodhead, referring to the results of the Huffington Post ranking.

He added that in his experience, students care about “the underlying social issues” and that translates to a preference in political party.  Some students involved with on-campus political groups find the lack of political action on campus unsurprising, however.

Senior Adam Lemon, former chair of Duke College Republicans, said that many people he knows are unable to find the time for politics.

“So many people care about [the election],” Lemon noted. “But whether through sheer human forgetfulness, a busy time schedule, apathy, or what have you, there’s just a number of reasons why people, regardless of how enthusiastic they are about the election, don’t turn out.”

An accurate descriptor?

In 2008, it may have been true to call Duke apathetic just by looking at the numbers, as Duke students voted at a rate more than 10 percentage points lower than youth in the nation. But it’s not clear whether “apathetic” remains an accurate descriptor of Duke students. 

“I guess it depends on what you define as apathetic,” said junior Amy Wang, vice president of Duke Democrats. “It’s hard to say that you don’t have an opinion on this election because let’s be serious—this election has been very polarizing and very controversial.”

Wang described Duke as a very opinionated campus, but divided in terms of involvement. She also agreed with Lemon that a lot of it has to do with students’ schedules.

“It’s kind of one or the other,” Wang said—either you’re involved actively, or not at all.

Visible measures of political engagement are not always evident. John Aldrich, Pfizer-Pratt university professor of political science, remains optimistically skeptical.

“I don’t see rallies,” he said. “I don’t see signs, I don’t see people wearing buttons so it doesn’t look like that many people are engaged—but I haven’t done my polling.”

Although Aldrich admits he doesn’t know what calculations went into the Huffington Post's ranking, he said that Duke has “one of the more engaged student populations” he has seen. Despite the lack of visible activism, Aldrich said he believes that the political engagement of Duke students is at least on par with engagement on other campuses. 

"They've got it wrong," he said, confidently dismissing the Huffington Post's conclusion. 

Why students care—or don’t

The professors and student activists Towerview interviewed shared several common theories about why students choose to get involved in politics. Many said this election in particular has changed how Duke students think about politics.

“I think it really depends on the resonance that develops between politics and student interest,” said William Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin professor emeritus of history.

He pointed out that Obama “did a good job of activating students and speaking to their idealism" in 2008.  When asked about the difference between then and now, Chafe was blunt—“I don’t think that has happened in this election at all."

“There’s certainly a lot of interest,” said Peter Feaver, professor of political science and a veteran of the George W. Bush administration. “But what is different this year is how much of that is negative."

A site to see

Although student efforts to increase voter turnout through voter registration drives and the like have been featured on campus in the past weeks, the single most prominent controversy has concerned the campus early voting site. Situated in West Union for the last election, early voting has now been moved to the Devil’s Den on Central Campus, and many are concerned the relocation will negatively impact voter turnout because fewer students will travel to Central.

“I think it’s definitely going to be an extra consideration for a lot of people going out to the polls,” Wang said.

Larry Moneta, newly-reappointed vice president for student affairs, said he thought the presence of an early voting site had increased voter turnout in the 2008 and 2012 election cycles. He pushed back against concerns that a Central Campus voting site would depress turnout, saying that the issues involved in an election would get students to turn out regardless of where they have to vote.

“I don’t think [the site change is] going to be the dominant issue,” he said. “I think the dominant issue is going to be far more the characteristics of the candidates.”

He added that the change in early voting—which takes place starting Thursday until Nov. 5.—was “strictly logistics.”

“When you take into account the requirements the [Durham County Board of Elections] provides, handicap accessibility, parking, so many feet from the nearest parking area […] there were just very, very few places that would work, and Devil’s Den was one of the only ones we could come up with,” he said.

The University, he promised, will be making efforts to combat any possible inconveniences with shuttle buses that will run throughout the day for early voting, as well as by altering the stops buses take.

Wang noted that if not enough students take advantage of the early voting site, it could be removed altogether for the next election, and students would be forced to vote off-campus in the future.

Beyond this specific issue, student groups want Duke to do more in general with promoting voter turnout.

“I don’t necessarily know what that would require specifically,” Lemon said. “But more needs to be done because the level of voter engagement is not yet acceptable. Efforts are being made, it’s headed in the right direction, but much more has to be done.”

Lemon suggested the possibility of a booklet for students outlining voting procedures and candidates as part of policy the University might consider implementing. Wang suggested improving education on North Carolina’s new voting laws. Overall, she acknowledged that, “for the most part, the best we can do is to ask them to make sure our voting sites are in better places.”

The value of a vote?

Unlike many others, Michael Munger, professor of political science, does not agree that students should necessarily be encouraged to rock the vote. 

“I think it’s a mistake to say that just because people say ‘I’m not going to participate and be complicit in a process that disgusts me’—that that is apathy,'” he said.

To Munger, who supports Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, voting provides a “sense of connection to something larger” but does not truly matter.

“Apathy,” he said, “is the correct response to the autocratic way that the parties have controlled access to voters.”

But Feaver said that this election is fundamentally different, and voting fundamentally more important as a result. 

“It’s a cliché that every election is the most important election of your lifetime,” Feaver said. “Every candidate says that. It’s a cliché, but the cliché might be true this time around."

And to those who aren't sure their voice matters, Moneta has a message.

“I get it. Have a moment, get over it and get your ass out there and make a difference,” he said.

Moneta argued that, “every important social justice movement in America is born or enabled by college campuses,” and emphasized that students have the opportunity to play their part. 

“You have no excuses,” he said. “You have none. You need a ride, call me, I’ll take you.”

Rachel Chason contributed reporting. 

Editor's note: The online version of this article was updated Wednesday afternoon to match what was published in print. The Chronicle regrets the confusion. 

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