Is Kenyon College, a prestigious school in an important swing state, civically unengaged? In 2008, the College garnered national attention from the New York Times for 10-hour waits at the polls during the 2004 presidential election, highlighting a seemingly robust and politically active student body. The results from the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement (NSLVE) this spring paint a starkly different picture.
The NSLVE gathered data from Kenyon and other institutions of higher education to provide colleges “with an opportunity to learn about the voting habits of their students using various national sources,” as written in a Student-Info email sent by the College’s Office of Institution and Research. This study analyzed Kenyon’s results for voter turnout in the 2012 Presidential Election and the 2014 Midterm Election.
Kenyon’s numbers were objectively low. In the 2012 Presidential Election Kenyon’s voting rate was 34.7 percent, compared to a 46.9 percent average at colleges and universities. In 2014, Kenyon’s voting rate was 10.2 percent versus 18.8 percent at all institutions.
“There’s a lot of groupthink and there’s definitely a lot of antipathy towards politics in general,” Sarah-Marie Choong ’17, a political science major, said. She was unsurprised by the numbers. Choong added that, on other campuses, “there is more competition, so there is more of an incentive to go out to vote,” referring to the prominent presence of the Kenyon Democrats on campus.
Choong was not the only one who was not surprised by the numbers. “Voting is a habit in certain ways, so once you’ve voted two or three times you are more likely to vote going forward,” Kurt Pyle, assistant professor of political science, said. “Also, the reason these college numbers are low is because when you move, re-registering is something that adds barrier to the process.” According to the NSLVE, 64 percent of students registered to vote in 2014.
The study also examined voting rate by academic major. In 2012, math majors turned out in the highest numbers with a rate of 40.7 percent. Students majoring in the social sciences, the category encompassing political science majors, turned out at a rate of 32.1 percent.
“I think a lot of a lot of math majors have an appreciation for the big picture, so they don’t get distracted by the politics,” Alton Barbehenn ’17, a math major, said. “They are able to stay focused on the issues that matter to them personally.”
For social science majors, on the other hand, “it is really easy to get disillusioned with it all, so you kind of get tired with the politics,” Choong said. “Whereas if you are not constantly engaged with that and keeping in touch with that, it’s a lot easier to say ‘oh yeah, my civic duty, let’s do this!’”
Both seem to agree: An overload of politics seems to have an inverse effect on civic participation. Pairing that with Pyle’s presentation of more practical constraints seems to put Kenyon’s low numbers into perspective.
The current election has shown a push for voter registration, with student volunteers from the Kenyon Democrats and Clinton campaign volunteers taking shifts in Peirce to register students nearly every day.