At the beginning of the semester last month, I was still getting to know the students in my two Critical Thinking classes at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. So out of curiosity, on the morning of the mayoral primary, I asked my students if they were planning to vote. I had pulled the levers (literally) before going to work that day.
In one class, no one raised their hands. In the second class, two students said they were voting later.
That meant only two young people out of about 50.
All of my students are New York City residents. Granted, a few are not citizens. But I was still shocked at the apathy -- and concerned for our democracy.
"Young people don't care about politics," said one class member, expressing the national trend of alienation among voters between the ages 18 and 24.
"Why not?" I probed. "What issues affect you as students at CUNY?"
After a little digging, they indicated concern about financial aid and rising tuition, housing and job opportunities after they graduated.
"But politicians only care about the 1 percent," added another student.
I told my students that every vote counts equally, whether cast by someone rich or poor, that people who don't vote are letting others decide their future. I explained how choosing a candidate involves applying the critical-thinking skills they're learning in this class: researching issues, dealing with ambiguity, making informed decisions.
They could see their professor was on a roll. I come from a family where voting is a duty taken seriously. I needed to get my students beyond the obvious disconnect that politics was for older folks and wealthy people.
"You have the opportunity to choose a new mayor and new city council members," I said, urging my students to register before the general election. Data analyzed by the nationwide Campus Vote Project campaign indicate that once young people make the effort to register, they're highly likely to go on to vote. The deadline to register for the mayoral election is this Friday, Oct. 11.
Before I let it go, I asked again: "So how many people think they will vote in November?"
A lot more hands shot up. For democracy's sake, I hope they weren't just humoring me.
Kate Walter is a freelance writer living in the far West Village.