It’s no secret that Kenyon students are politically involved. There are many thriving political organizations on campus, and Kenyon students are diligent in staying informed about the issues that are facing our country. The importance of voting is frequently discussed on campus, as it should be. However, Kenyon students should not vote in Gambier elections. Instead, they should vote absentee in their hometowns.
There is an evident tension that exists between the conservative/Republican majority of Knox County and the liberal/Democratic majority on campus and in Gambier as a whole. In last year’s midterm elections, students were active in registering their peers to vote and also in helping get them to the polls on Election Day. In the days leading up to the midterms, signs covered the two tables at the entrance of Pierce, one reading, “Turn Knox County Blue.” I found that sign to be particularly problematic for reasons that are still relevant this year and will continue to remain relevant as we enter into the highly anticipated 2020 primary election. Sentiments like “Turn Knox County Blue” send a divisive message that Kenyon students think there is a “problem” with the Knox County political majority—and that they should be the ones to “fix” it by voting in Gambier elections.
I find the general attitude among Kenyon students when it comes to the conservative/Republican Knox County majority to be, for lack of a better term, elitist. Kenyon students seem to think that because they are receiving a prestigious education, they know better than Knox County residents when it comes to local politics. This attitude is incredibly problematic because it has roots in stereotypes about the people who live in small rural towns and vote Republican. It also equates level of formal education with being educated about political and social issues facing the community, which is not a direct correlation. Kenyon students seem to view the general Knox County population as “uneducated,” assuming that they have not thought through their political ideology and educated themselves on issues. Of course, that is a possibility, but uneducated voters exist along the entire political spectrum.
Sentiments like “Turn Knox County Blue” do not help to build bridges of understanding and positive bipartisan relationships between Kenyon students and the residents of Knox County. Local elections are essential, but they are not important just because they are the foundation of national politics; they are important because of their direct impact on the people who live in the community, and should not be viewed as simply a pawn for achieving a desired national outcome. Many students choose to register to vote in Gambier in order to have a “swing state vote” in the next primary election, which takes the focus away from the issues facing communities like Knox County.
Kenyon is a bubble, and, as much as we try to pop the bubble, the experience of being a student in Gambier is not reflective of the general experiences of Knox County residents. While Kenyon students do contribute to the local economy and there is a significant amount of Kenyon student employees who pay income tax, these contributions are cushioned by the bubble of Kenyon. Kenyon students don’t pay Knox County property taxes and most likely won’t end up sending their kids to Knox County public schools.
Part of being informed about local politics is being informed about local life and local concerns; that is not something that Kenyon students can do to the necessary extent. The students who I know that voted in Gambier struggled to be able to vote on all issues and candidates that were on the ballot. In small town elections information about the issues and candidates is not extensive or easily accessible and knowing locals in the community is essential; not many Kenyon students have those connections.
Local elections have local consequences—both good and bad — that can extend far beyond the four years that Kenyon students spend here. The reality is that Kenyon students aren’t entrenched enough in the local life to make informed political decisions for Gambier and Knox County, especially since those decisions often don’t directly affect Kenyon students, and when they do it is not nearly to the same extent that local residence experience. Yes, voting in local elections is important and Kenyon students should vote, but they should vote in their their hometown elections—the places where they have firsthand experience of what being a local resident is like.