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Why I Required My Students to Vote

by Merrill Maguire Skaggs - October 25, 2004

In the summer of 2004 I attended the annual meeting of The Society for Values in Higher Education, this year held at Hampton University in Virginia, and heard some gripping political speeches about American policy and the upcoming election.  The most dismaying fact I learned, however, was that American students had the capacity to swing an election, but in the last national election only 37% had even bothered to vote.  Thus, candidates did not bother to address student issues thoroughly, if at all, since the students weren’t a reliable voting constituency anyway.  Educators therefore had their work cut out for them:  get out the student vote.  As my already acute anxieties increased, I began to search for something I could do at least to make a public statement acknowledging my concerns about student political turpitude.  My money was nonexistent, my time tight, and my energy low. 


Then I heard a Washington lawyer at the conference say that he required all the martial arts students in classes he taught as a hobby, to register to vote as soon as they enrolled.  His professed philosophy was, “Citizenship comes first, even before martial arts.”   This seemed to me a promising approach.  It seemed something I might do, too.


I teach at a small liberal arts university in New Jersey, named Drew.  Our classes are mercifully small and my autumn teaching load includes only two of them.  Obviously, I would have a relatively small number of students for the Fall semester, but I hoped that the thought might count.  For me, making what I myself could consider a meaningful gesture was the important thing—the personal satisfaction of finding something I could do.  I began to contemplate a voting requirement.


Being naturally cautious and fearful, however, I thought to find out first what objections there might be to this idea.  Since I have believed for the 40+ years of my Drew connection (I’m now 67.) that all my questions could be answered by the Drew community if I could remember who to ask, I decided to find out what was wrong with requiring voting by the ploy of inviting the Drew faculty to join me in doing it.  I found out. The blitz of emails in our ensuing summer “dust up” suggested that the idea sounded totalitarian, that it was probably illegal, that it denied students their civil right not to vote, that students would be served better by substantive class discussions of the issues.  And in any case, I was reminded, there was no way to monitor compliance of this requirement so it was pedagogically unsound.  I felt I needed to think through these criticisms.


Though I got through “totalitarian” by reminding myself that countries and classrooms were different—that classrooms were not democracies and all of them had requirements—the most compelling counter-argument reached me later through emails.  Eventually six correspondents, the furthest writing from Tokyo, told me that Australia required all citizens to vote and fined those who didn’t.  All informants added, Australia is not normally considered totalitarian.  But that information reached me after the New York Times had covered my story.  In the decision-making process I had to settle my qualms with the suspicion that my students would find the requirement to turn their work in on time much harsher than the requirement to vote, which many would likely be planning to do anyway.


The legalities of the issue were even more nervous-making, so I eventually queried four lawyers, none of whom I paid for their advice.  The youngest of them pointed out that a student might be required to enter a voting booth, but what that student then did was private, and included several ways of not voting:  she could leave the line blank, he could write in himself, or they could vote for Donald Duck.  My aim could be to assure myself that my students had met the voting booth, and it was theirs.  Soon information arrived about national laws requiring colleges to make good faith efforts to encourage and aid student voting, as well as several copies of notices sent out elsewhere by alert provosts (Drew employs no provost.).  I decided that requiring voting would just be my way of helping my school do what the law mandated it to do.


Arguments branched and bifurcated about how better I could accomplish my ultimate aims if I simply held good class discussions.  In the middle of this conversation, however, a friend sent me statements by Max Weber arguing that polemics and proselytizing have no place in a classroom.  Since I did not trust myself to obscure my own biases and convictions effectively, and since I knew that any teacher speaks from a power position which could seem coercive, I decided that I myself would be better off keeping my opinions private:  I would instead trust dormitory discussions, where learning is always said to occur most effectively anyway.  And I figured I had a better chance of triggering dormitory issue-wrestling through requiring my students to vote, even while complaining—the louder the complaints, the larger and more likely the dorm bull sessions.  I would risk being a pariah if it brought the dorms to the polls.


The only easy issue for me was the one about monitoring compliance.  I simply reminded myself that I have always run my classes on the honor system.  I routinely take my students’ words that they have done their own written work or homework, and I see no need to change now.  I will ask each of them to turn in a signed statement saying whether they voted, and then I will believe what they say.  Those who are not citizens are excused.  Frankly, my mission is already accomplished.  To that off-campus critic who feared I would thrust hordes of uninformed voters into the election process, I can only say that my normally good students have had two months to get informed, since they heard of the requirement to vote in the first ten minutes of our semester’s work together; and they prove to me daily how extremely competent and shrewd they are.  I trust their final good judgments, too.


The student newspaper did not share my equanimity.  Most students, when asked on the sidewalk whether they approved of requiring a class to vote, announced they did not.  After several weeks of repeated student disparagement expressed through their newspaper, The Acorn, the brouhaha caught the eye of a Times reporter who wrote up the story.  Television journalists picked up the story from the Times, and student newspapers around the nation and into Canada spotted copy from these sources and each other.  I became a controversy.  It was a lot of fun, and I made contact with a lot of new friends.


But my aims have now broadened.  What I now say to all who contact me is that it’s time for students to seize their power.  The first practical step is to vote, since that’s the way to prove they’re paying attention to power politics.  I personally believe that if student votes can be seen to swing as few as two states in the November election, then students will have proved that student issues must be honestly addressed and questions plausibly answered in the next three presidential elections.  And if the states swing on student votes, the fact will be proved and obvious moral drawn:  tend to the students.


What I would wish could happen before November 2 is that our candidates would veer from what I see as their I-love-education-mom-and-apple pie approach to the student population.  I think the most imperative student question they ought to be answering realistically and plausibly is this one:  where do you find the bodies to train, send, and kill, in the escalating war in Iraq, without a draft?  And what about equal rights and responsibilities in a draft-age population that is slightly more than half women?

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 25, 2004
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11390, Date Accessed: 1/21/2022 9:14:38 PM

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About the Author
  • Merrill Skaggs
    Drew University
    E-mail Author
    MERRILL MAQUIRE SKAGGS is Professor of English and Donald R. and Winifred B. Baldwin Professor of Humanities at Drew University. Her areas of specialization include American Literature, Southern Literature, American Romantics, and Willa Cather. Her recent publications include Willa Cather's New York: New Essays on Cather in the City, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
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