By Jenny Smulson, Vice President of Government Relations, AJCU
In a posthumous New York Times opinion piece published in late July, the Honorable John Lewis, former member of Congress and Civil Rights leader, wrote, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”
This year, the challenge of holding an election during a worldwide pandemic has upended our nation’s conventional model for exercising the right to vote. Instead of the majority of voters heading to the polls on Tuesday, November 3, most voters in states across the country voted early and/or by mail. In many states, the margin of victory was slim, reminding us of the importance and value of each vote. During this election season (both on and before November 3), who took John Lewis’ words to heart?
According to the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), about 52 percent of eligible young people (ages 18-29) voted (an increase of approximately 8 percent from 2016). While young people of color favored the Biden/Harris ticket by significant margins, young voters overall choose President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris by a 61% – 36% margin. Their voices may have been especially impactful in swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.
AJCU institutions contributed to this swell of youth participation by providing resources to potential voters, including students, faculty and staff. We highlighted stories from four of our campuses in last month’s issue of Connections. Two more examples can be found at institutions located in the aforementioned Pennsylvania and Michigan: states that helped to tip the balance in this election. At The University of Scranton in Scranton, PA, the Royals Vote initiative provided timely information and resources to help engage student voters. Resource guides shared voting deadlines and explained how to register, develop a voting plan and track one’s ballot. Titans Together For the Vote at the University of Detroit Mercy in Detroit, MI used a similar model, providing students with the important information they would need to take part in the democratic process of voting.
The CIRCLE data show that in both Pennsylvania and Michigan, the net youth vote for President-elect Biden was greater than the vote margin. Did they make the difference? We cannot say that with certainty, but we can say that the youth vote contributed overall to victories for the Biden/Harris ticket. Creating awareness and sharing resources was not unique to these institutions, however, as all AJCU institutions worked to inform, empower and encourage student engagement in the election.
The Presidential election is not the only race that will define the federal policy agenda this year and beyond. Although the results are not final, it appears that Democrats will set the agenda in the U.S. House of Representatives, but with a slimmer margin than in the previous 116th Congress. Control of the Senate is still unknown, with two run-off races in Georgia that will determine which party will hold the majority. The outcomes of these two Georgia Senate races will determine whether we have Democratic majorities in the House, Senate and White House, or if this 117th Congress will begin with shared governance. As in Michigan and Pennsylvania, young voters turned out in the Georgia general election and accounted for 21 percent of the vote. Will they play a significant role in the run-off? My guess is that they will meet the call to act again, and that their votes will be consequential in these high-stakes races.
As we look ahead to January, AJCU has a lot of work to do, and we are excited to get started! We will re-engage with our elected leaders – new and returning – and remind them (or introduce them) of the power of a Jesuit education, and why we work to make this formational type of learning accessible to students from the United States and across the world.