Viewpoint

J.B. Sivanich

In my January 18 column, “Lawrence’s role in Our Election Decisions: Part 1 of 2,” I outlined my frustration with MyElectionDecision.org, citing the flaws within the site itself. I now want to discuss why I think the effort, which is centered on MyElectionDecision, is so misguided.
The primary focus of this recent effort has been to inform students about their election decisions, while also trying to maximize Lawrence’s voter turnout: MyElectionDecision seems to be the sole vehicle for this effort.
While voting is an instrumental aspect of political engagement, this program is so solely focused upon it that it further propagates the notion that reading up on candidates and voting every two years or so makes one an informed and active participant in our democratic government, when the truth is very far from that.
The recent survey on campus political sentiments from the Beck seminar yielded some very interesting results. A very high number (67 percent) of those surveyed said that they had visited MyElectionDecision, which shows a high level of concern about the election and curiosity about campus activities.
On the other hand, only a startlingly small group (55 percent) said that they plan to vote in the general elections.
Although the percentages do not drastically differ mathematically, they both surprised me in their respective extremes.
While personal apathy is most likely the leading cause of the phenomenon of low turnout — among young people especially — there are too many issues, both psychological and sociological, to focus primarily on apathy.
In an embarrassing irony, the Lawrence University Community Council had to move its election deadlines since only one candidate from an eligible field of 1,420 students registered to run for LUCC president on time.
The point is that “cool Web sites” and other similar methods cannot replace personal responsibility when it comes to creating “Model One” voters — those who “actively seek out as much information as possible” making “rational decisions under conditions of full information.”
While MyElectionDecision is certainly well-intended, there are many more efficient ways of helping people become active citizens. In fact, due to the pitfalls stated in my previous column, I believe that MyElectionDecision actually has little impact on whether a person is a Model One voter or not.
In her Lawrence Today cover article, President Jill Beck outlines many of the same major problems that I attribute to this apathy, mainly that of little faith in our political and election system.
Our generation witnessed the decidedly undemocratic 2000 election, which was of course followed by the swift and complete dismissal of (the very valid) claims of voter fraud in Ohio in 2004.
Our current electoral system pretty much negates the vote of anyone who does not live in the 11 or so swing states. Right now the closely contested Democratic race is threatened with the possibility that it will be decided by superdelegates, party insiders who may have previous loyalties.
None of these topics, however, are brought up in conjunction with MyElectionDecision or any of the efforts the administration has taken to address political activity on campus.
In other words, I do not see any of these recent efforts as having a direct or significant effect on the root of the problem: young peoples’ lack of faith in our political process.
Beck delves into the concept of civic responsibility in her article, referring to Lawrence’s theme of individual education last year and the introduction of the senior experience with next year’s class.
I could not be more pleased to see our school initiate these efforts and I strongly believe that they will lead to greater political engagement. But it is these individualized and community-based dimensions that are exactly what the recent MyElectionDecision-led effort is lacking.
A university, especially a liberal arts school, provides a great opportunity for political engagement due to its resources — faculty and otherwise — and its role as the centermost learning environment within young people’s lives.
It can provide the “context of social interactions” that Anne Colby says are so conducive to the development of moral and political concepts, as Beck quotes in her article.
Many politically-minded young persons, however, lack the specific knowledge, to use another quote from Colby, of “how things work, including … which issues and actions are appropriate to address at which level of government” necessary to voice their opinions effectively.
As Beck notes, many members of today’s younger generations turn to volunteerism as an outlet for their political action. Beck goes on to state that this is not sufficient, a statement with which I wholeheartedly agree.
Beck hits the nail on the head when she talks about civic duty, which makes it even more difficult to understand why so much effort has been dedicated to MyElectionDecision and why the site is the face of the administration’s involvement with student’s political actions.
MyElectionDecision is completely void of the hands-on, specific instruction that is at the center of the recent year focused on individualized learning, the senior experience, and freshman studies.
The site does, however, try (and fail) to make up for a lack of civic education, which is not part of the current individualized study efforts.
Renewed trust and respect for our governmental system is the best solution for political apathy. Our generation is increasingly individualized and increasingly goal-oriented; we want to see the tangible effects of our labors — the sooner the better.
It is only when we can manifest our political sentiments and opinions as direct action that real change will take place.
This is not to say that Lawrentians have not undertaken such measures: Shack-a-thon, Habitat for Humanity and Earth Day provide opportunities for the whole campus to get involved, Students for Leftist Action and the Viking Conservatives consistently bring in dialogue-provoking speakers, while Greenfire and Co-op incorporate their activism into their daily lives.
Lawrence has also done many comparable things such as bringing in speakers Andrew Sullivan and Terry Anderson, and providing nurturing support for the aforementioned groups. Lawrence has not, however, put together a workable solution unique to the academic environment that could help students develop their direct engagement in government.
I would like to see Lawrence develop a program — in the vein of the yearlong MyElectionDecision effort and with the same enthusiasm and backing — intended to train students to be civic leaders within our community.
This effort needs to be comprised of not only volunteerism but also working with our government, using Lawrence’s abundant resources. Lawrence provides the desirable conditions for such a program, and it’s a shame that efforts that could — and should — be going into a full-fledged program are being diverted into such a nearsighted endeavor as MyElectionDecision.

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