Three deans wrote an op-ed last week—the first of several to come—that ended with all the sound and fury of a third-grade social studies textbook: “[V]ote for the party and candidate of your choice, but by all means vote.” Superficially signifying nothing. But what if there’s a not-so-hidden message behind this greatest-generation bull about civic responsibility? In defense of our elders, I don’t mean to dirty the good name of civic responsibility. Still, it may be worth examining what “civic responsibility” actually means in context, and it’s certainly worth understanding why your professors so desperately want you to vote. So let’s take a look at a few fun facts that they know just as well as I do:
- One vote doesn’t make a difference. How little of a difference does one vote make? Nate Silver Maharshi found with colleagues at Cal and Columbia that the odds of changing the outcome of a presidential election with a single vote are, at best, one in ten million. Sure, your vote is more likely to change the outcome of a statewide election, but only marginally. If your vote matters, it will matter on the local level, where ties and single-vote wins have been known to happen—but your odds of changing the makeup of the Senate and the House of Representatives are slim.
- A percentage point here and there does make a difference, and if your professors influence you and your friends to vote, their pleas might have a real effect on the midterms. In other words, getting your friends to the polls is at least as important as voting yourself.
- Stanford undergraduates (and undergraduates at peer institutions) overwhelmingly tend away from the Republican establishment. In 2016, 85 percent of surveyed Stanford students expressed a preference for Hillary Clinton, and it’s reasonable to assume that a similar percentage will prefer Democrats in 2018. Nationwide, a majority of millennials place themselves somewhere left of center.
Professors direct their appeals to you, a Stanford student—rather than some low-turnout community in rural Kansas—for a very good reason. A higher percentage of politically active undergraduates means higher odds of a Democratic majority in Congress. The Stanford College Republicans aren’t asking you to register to vote because conservatives in Washington benefit from you not doing your civic duty. Your participation in American democracy, as it happens, does not serve the powers that be.
So: when professors and university administrators bemoan Stanford’s low voter turnout, they’re bemoaning low Democratic voter turnout. And when they ask you to vote, they’re counting on you and other students to vote for the Democratic Party. Just as Ted Cruz’s appeal to the American conscience sought to mobilize voters against Donald Trump, so does Stanford’s appeal to your conscience seek to mobilize students against the White House.
For some, the ivory tower’s characteristic lack of transparency may be a source of frustration, but obfuscatory language doesn’t make your professors wrong. So if they won’t say it clearly, I will: this November, voting for Democrats is your civic duty. Is the Democratic Party flawed? Yes, absolutely. Are Democrats radical enough? Well, no, not for me—and maybe they’re too radical for you. But even if you’re choosing between two bland neoliberals in your state or district, there is a clear choice. One believes in climate change, and the other probably doesn’t. One believes in universal healthcare, and one will vote to take it away. One will fight a president who treats the vulnerable with contempt, and the other will defend him unconditionally. Whatever your politics, our current leadership is unempathetic and criminally incompetent. A historically dangerous White House puts the Democrats on the right side of history, and our professors are right. Students have a responsibility to get behind them.
So come November 6, don’t just vote. Do your duty and vote for change.
Contact Chapman Caddell at jcaddell ‘at’ stanford.edu