Why Bother, Wisconsin? Because our democracy is worth it
I am writing this letter as Beloit’s Resident Advisors are busy preparing for the upcoming year, the football team has begun their (hot) practices for the fall season, and Orientation Leaders are getting ready to make the newest Beloiters’ transitions to their new academic home spectacularly welcoming and helpful. Opening Convocation and the first day of classes are right around the corner.
Amid all the excitement and anticipation for the year ahead, however, hardly a day goes by in which higher education publications do not have an article or two on how deeply many students disengaged from their college experiences as last year came to a close — one of the many consequences of more than two years of a pandemic. Among the great challenges for U.S. colleges and universities is how to help students reconnect more often and more deeply to the schools they are attending.
At the same time, the fundamentals of what makes a democratic society work are being tested this fall in ways that are outside my 40-plus years of experience as a voter. As we hurtle toward November 8th and the midterm elections, the act of voting — the linchpin of democracy — matters in ways that would have been unpredictable a decade ago. This is not a partisan sentence; it is a sentence about my concern for the future of a political system I deeply love that is being undermined daily. Voting matters, as it always has, in the determination of political outcomes, but it also matters as a way of expressing support for the essence of democracy.
So, this fall we are launching and leading a new initiative with colleges and universities in Wisconsin and in neighboring states to help students understand the importance of voting, to make it easier for them to cast a ballot, and to build a lifelong habit of voting. Dubbed the “Why Bother, Wisconsin?” initiative, we have created a variety of resources that help students register, find their ballots, identify their polling sites, and help, if they want, with the election process. This is accompanied by exciting on-campus programming to bring the initiative to life, not only this fall but in subsequent election cycles.
In short, we are seeking to engage our students in the core act of being a citizen in a democratic society — voting. Indeed, we are asking other colleges and universities to join us in turning November 8th into a day of democratic action. We will provide the space for this by substituting this day of active democracy for the classes students would have otherwise attended and look forward to other colleges doing likewise.
There is good reason to be optimistic about the initiative’s outcomes. The Institute for Democracy in Higher Education reports that in 2020, 66 percent of eligible college students voted, up from 52 percent in 2016. This puts college students at about the same rate as the general population. Trying to turn this encouraging data point into a trend and then an expectation is the initiative’s point. Helping to make engaged citizenship a habit needs to be an important part of a student’s Beloit experience.
Arguably we have probably been too complacent over the last few decades in helping our students appreciate how important voting is as an act of democratic citizenship. Of course, we have done a variety of things aimed in this direction, but we have not made it a key priority. This year is different. By the time you read this, the outcome of these efforts will be known. I hope you will be seeing in one form or another evidence that our efforts made a difference not only at Beloit but across all of higher education in Wisconsin.
I conclude with a short reminder of one of the most important statistics of the 2020 national election. A record 155 million Americans cast legal ballots. This was nearly 67 percent of the eligible population, up nearly 5 percentage points from the 2016 election and 7 percentage points from the 2000 election. Americans responded to 2020’s challenges by directly participating in our democracy. That is more than just a glimmer of hope in our future. Let’s keep the momentum going.
From here at Chapin’s desk, it is a great day to celebrate Beloit College’s role in developing engaged citizens.
President Scott Bierman