Photo by Andrew Wigdor / MTSU Sidelines
Tennessee and Murfreesboro data shows that the state has a serious dilemma when it comes to elections: Young adults aren’t voting.
According to data collected by bipartisan Tennessee voting study Project Register, one million Tennesseans who are 18 or older are not registered to vote, and 60 percent of non-voters are under the age of 45. Additionally, 38 percent of that 60 are Tennesseans age 18 to 29.
Local numbers don’t fare much better.
According to Rutherford County Election Commission Administrator Alan Farley, there were 37,534 registered voters in the 18 to 30 age group in the 2016 election. Of that group, only 13,388 of the 37,534 voted in the November election, or around 35 percent. The total amount of Rutherford County voters in the November 2016 election was 102,548, meaning that the 18 to 30 age group made up around 13 percent of total 2016 voters.
Despite the low turnout from young individuals, Rutherford County residents aged 20 to 29 make up the largest age group in the area at 17 percent of the total population, according to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau data.
Furthermore, less than half of the student population of MTSU did not vote in 2016. Out of 19,887 eligible MTSU students, only 8,858 voted in the 2016 election, according to the National Study of Learning, Voting and Education’s 2017 MTSU report.
So, why aren’t young people voting?
According to Mary Evins, an associate professor and coordinator of the MTSU American Democracy Project, an organization that strives to increase student involvement in democracy, the answer is a complicated one.
“There are many factors,” Evins said. “One of them is I think people spend an awful lot of time just poking around on social media, and they get a lot of negative junk that they don’t know how to decipher where the sources are. They’re heeding and listening to a lot of the negativity that’s being spread … Students have a very negative ‘My vote doesn’t count’ world-view.”
“After the Parkland shooting last spring, when all those high school students went out (and protested), I was hoping that our college-aged students would get motivated,” Evins added.
Jeffrey Hughes, an MTSU junior, is currently not registered to vote and carries a view similar to what Evins referenced.
“I don’t think the votes matter for the people,” Hughes said. “When it comes to presidential elections, the majority vote doesn’t really count. It’s more of the electoral college. It’s more of a show. Even advertisements just seem like UFC fights or a boxing match, like a big show.”
“I feel like our generation doesn’t really see the importance in voting because we’re kind of new on the scene,” said Jeremy Dobbs, an MTSU senior. “It’s something we just take for granted.”
Evins said that, in many cases, the idea that an individual’s vote doesn’t matter stems from a lack of education.
“I’d place much of that squarely on professors who don’t realize that a full component of what their purpose is is not only to teach for content and curriculum … but for citizenship,” Evins said. “Every single faculty member has to understand that their primary obligation is to educate our students so that when our kids leave this university, they are prepared to go into a participatory democracy and play their role.”
According to research from The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, the more education a young person has, the more likely they are to vote.
Evins also mentioned that, putting aside a general feeling of apathy from student and young voters, there are a number of elements that disenfranchise young people who wish to participate.
“Counties and county election commissions in which colleges and universities find themselves often wish to disrupt participation in their local election because they feel as though the students represent some rabid, alternative worldview that is going to disrupt Billy Bob who is going to run for sheriff,” Evins said. “It’s true in our county here in Rutherford, and it’s true in other places.”
Tess Shelton, an MTSU senior, is currently writing her thesis on student voter turnout, and has found through her research that there are many systemic barriers for younger individuals.
“It’s not uncommon that the local election commission is kind of hostile toward younger voters,” Shelton. “They don’t want them to participate, so they kind of discourage it.”
Shelton said that election commissions are reluctant to put polling places on campus, causing students without reliable transportation to walk far distances on a day that they still have classes.
“A barrier at MTSU is that you have to walk pretty far to get to a polling place,” Shelton said. “If you are a person on campus and you don’t have a car, which is about 20 percent of the students who live on campus, you could be looking at like an hour’s worth of walking, round trip.”
The closest polling locations to MTSU are over a mile away from certain residence halls on campus.
“The state of Illinois recently passed (legislation) that requires every state college to have a polling place as a measure to improve student voter turnout,” Shelton said.
A polling place is currently not housed on MTSU’s campus, despite many being provided at local elementary and middle schools.
Shelton also mentioned that it’s problematic that one can use forms of identification such as a military ID but not a student ID when voting.
In 2015, a federal judge upheld a Tennessee voter ID law in which students are prohibited from using their university ID when voting. In Tennessee, attempts have been made every year since 2011, when the state first passed the voter identification law that required the use of photo IDs at polling places but prohibited student IDs, to add student IDs to the approved forms of identification. Lawmakers who support the legislation cite the lack of uniformity when it comes to student IDs, but those in favor of the addition say the ID law is another way that the government blocks young people from participating.
Another issue comes from some states requiring that students show proof of a permanent residence while registering. Reports of students being turned away due to their college address not being “permanent” have been popping up in recent years. NBC News reported that University of Maryland student Sarah Lilly was told in 2015 that students would face consequences if they tried to register in the county of their college rather than their home county.
Students in Rutherford County do have the option to transfer their registration or request an absentee ballot if they live in some other part of Tennessee when not attending MTSU, but many are unaware of this.
“They’re registered back at home, and they don’t understand that there’s specific dates when they have to vote,” Evins said.
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