By Adam Rubenfire
March 10, 2012
In the 2008 presidential election, the youth vote played a record role in the election of President Barack Obama. With the 2012 election just months away, campus organizations from an array of diverse backgrounds are lauding the importance of student involvement in the campaign.
About 40 students from the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University attended a rally in Angell Hall Friday evening that included speeches from Sen. Carl Levin (D–Mich.), U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke (D–Mich.), state Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) and state Rep. Fred Durhal Jr. (D–Detroit). The University’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Central Student Government’s Voice Your Vote Commission co-hosted the event, which centered on encouraging political activism among high school and college students.
Levin, who spoke first, emphasized the importance for students to be politically active and participate in the voting process, especially to bolster the liberal vote following the Republican surge to take control of Congress in 2010.
In an interview after his speech, Levin said even on issues of higher education, students are often unable to grasp the effect of politics on their daily lives.
“Young people frequently don’t understand what the difference is, what difference it makes whether they vote or not,” Levin said.
Levin said high school and college students played an unprecedented role in electing Obama four years ago. He compared student support for Obama to that of former President John F. Kennedy, noting that youth support for Kennedy — which was visible at his famous Peace Corps speech on the steps of the Michigan Union in 1960 — was likely surpassed by Obama’s 2008 campaign.
“You can’t duplicate that; you can’t do that every election,” Levin said. “But you can protect what’s important, and that’s what I believe the energy the Obama program makes a difference in.”
Durhal, who is also chair of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus, said when there is a low voter turnout, elections fail to effectively represent the opinions of all Americans.
“The minority of folk are determining who the majority of leaders are,” Durhal said. “A small number (is) making the decision for the mass number.”
Durhal said it’s important that people of diverse backgrounds participate in the political process.
“All (backgrounds) have to be fairly represented,” Durhal said. “And it cannot happen when you stay home and don’t participate.”
Irwin emphasized to students the importance of each and every vote, providing the example of the 2010 election of University alum Yousef Rabhi, who won his seat on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners by two votes.
Irwin stressed that students should voice their opinions to their elected officials, particularly issues that directly impact them like the recent debate over whether the University’s graduate student research assistants should be able to unionize.
“We want to hear from you,” Irwin said. “We want to hear from students at the University of Michigan.”
Clarke similarly urged students to voice their opinions against rising student debt.
“There are some people who have been paying their student loans for 10, 20, 30 years,” Clarke said.
On Thursday, Clarke introduced H.R. 4170, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, which states that if student loan recipients make payments equal to 10 percent of their discretionary income for a period of 10 years, the remaining balance of their federal student loan debt will be forgiven.
“It’s time for Congress to stand for the rights of student loan borrowers,” Clarke said in a speech on the House floor Thursday. “It’s time to forgive these student loan debts.”
Debbie Dingell, wife of Congressman John Dingell and a prominent political figure in the state, also attended the event.
In an interview after the rally, Dingell said issues such as jobs, education and health care are especially important to young adults and they should play an active role in determining policy.
“All those decisions are being made, and young people need to be involved,” Dingell said. “They’re a very important part of our population, and you can make or break and make the difference in an election.”
Dingell said the power of campus groups such as the University’s chapter of the NAACP to mobilize students to vote and become politically active is an important aspect of student civic involvement.
“This is a community,” Dingell said. “It’s knowing that you’re a part, it’s individual-to-individual contact, it’s understanding what your interests as a community are and exercising that. We need to be seeing this across campus, and the women need to talk about what the issues are. (We’re) organized by different interests, but people with common interests should be organizing, talking about how they make a difference.”
Janee Brown, president of the University’s chapter of NAACP, told students at the event that they need to hold their representatives accountable for cuts to financial aid that have taken place at the state and federal levels.
“Your way of affecting your education is by voting for different officials who are actually making a difference,” Brown said.
Todd Flynn, chair of Central Student Government’s Voice Your Vote Commission, said political apathy on campus is the leading reason to why students at the University do not vote.
“We think that a lot of that apathy comes from a lack of information,” Flynn said. “Students don’t understand how they’re affected by decisions made in seemingly faraway places by people they haven’t met.”
Lauren Coffman, communications chair of the University’s chapter of the College Democrats, stressed that in light of recent policy proposals by Republicans that would restrict access to birth control and presidential hopeful Rick Santorum’s criticism of Obama’s college accessibility efforts, it’s crucially important for America’s youth to speak up.
“Tell (politicians) that as a woman, you’re not going to stand by while there are attacks going on with your right to health care and your right to contraception,” Coffman said. “Tell them that as a student, you’re not going to allow politicians to tell you that it’s elitist to think that everyone has the same right to education that you have here at the University. And tell them that when a presidential candidate says that we should let our schools go bankrupt, that as a Michigander and a Wolverine, you’re not going to stand for that.”
CSG President DeAndree Watson said the Voice Your Vote Commission is working to educate students on the importance of the student vote.
“It’s important for us to vote because, if we need anything changed in the state, even in this country, it’s going to happen through us collectively voting and making sure we are putting people in office who reflect our values and will work on our behalf,” Watson said.