Newman: Making our votes matter

At the bottom of this page, Matt Shafer ’13 is talking about American political discourse. It’s become manic, militant and, quite frankly, depressing. Debates about pressing issues like immigration reform border on the surreal with members of Congress talking about “terror babies” and toying with repealing the 14th Amendment. And as Shafer points out, the intensity and absurdity of the rhetoric out of the Tea Party and the growing list of promises unfulfilled by President Obama have left many Americans, regardless of party affiliation, exasperated and in need of a break.

Despite it all, though, it seems Yalies continue to believe in the power and the importance of their vote. Liberals on campus recognize the stakes this time around — the promise of the Republican Party to repeal the President’s healthcare reforms and to continue tax cuts for the most wealthy. They recognize the choice between the President’s vision and policy goals, already fulfilled or not, and the Republican’s “Pledge to America” that was unveiled Thursday. This was made quite clear last week, when I was registering students to vote. “Are you registered to vote in Connecticut?” I would open every time. “No,” I heard more times than not, “My Congressman at home needs me more.”

Can’t argue with that.

Whatever the state, whatever the race, many Yalies see the vote as a way to achieve an end. On the national level, it’s a way to end programs like “don’t ask don’t tell,” to guarantee an education for immigrant students through the DREAM Act or to bring about a more sustainable future. In Connecticut, it’s a way to spur the economy by attracting business, to close the tremendous opportunity gap between students and to shrink the deficit. We understand it as a way to change.

But not everyone sees it that way, as I experienced last Saturday while working with the Community Voter Project. While registering voters in New Haven, my partner, a New Haven resident, and I talked about New Haven and Yale and how people in each community view and use politics.

For many in New Haven, blocks away from Yale and street corners from where those students that are registered will be voting this fall, the vote is not such a beautiful thing. It is something solicited, something asked of them once an election cycle. After being pushed to the polls, if, in fact, they do vote, many return home without the slightest feeling that their time was well spent or that they made an investment in their future. This sentiment was all too clear as we walked the streets and knocked on doors, only to be met with skepticism of our presence and our message of the importance of voting.

I do not mean to make a wholesale generalization of political engagement in the city, only to convey what some in the city see as a fact of life. While some Yalies may find themselves frustrated by the political process, many in New Haven are frustrated by their being left out of the process entirely.

But political capital is a self-creating and self-sustaining resource. If you are frustrated by the national discourse and doubting the efficacy of the political process, make this your issue this election. Volunteer in voter registration drives in the city, engage your neighbors in conversation about what they need and what they are passionate about. This election cycle can motivate new community leaders and can be the start of new grassroots initiatives in the city. It can be the beginning of new, unforeseen bonds between Yalies and community members.

The failed attempts at change, the surprising and passionate opposition to reform, the occasional “insanity” — all of these can make you lose faith in our political processes. But returning to the basics, helping individuals to have their voice heard and to sustain that participation — that’s an inspiring refresher.

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