Yesterday, the Georgetown Hoya student newspaper published a somewhat provocative editorial calling on students to not register to vote in DC and rather vote absentee in their home states.
The reasoning behind the piece was that with DC disenfranchisement in Congress and its guaranteed three electoral votes for Obama, students would “get more bang from their ballot” by voting in more competitive and consequential elections back home.
There’s some undeniable truth to this reasoning, but it’s myopic. The editorial throws a bone to the admirable DC Students Speaks effort, but kicks the legs out of that campaign by stating “it’s evident that poor student turnout in D.C. has been problematic.” In other words, because students don’t vote here, why bother voting here?
The heart of the editorial points to the slim 537 votes that George W. Bush beat Al Gore by in Florida in 200. It notes that 250 current Georgetowners are from Florida and concludes that “you never know beforehand if voting will make a difference.”
Here are some other numbers: Georgetown University has over 7,000 undergrads. GWU has over 10,000. In 2008, Jack Evans beat Cary Silverman for the Democratic nomination for Ward 2 3,100 votes to 1,700. This year he ran unopposed and only drew 2,900 votes. If thirty percent of college students living in Ward 2 voted for an alternative candidate they would swamp Evans. The rest of the pages of the Hoya are often filled with angst over the way students are treated by the city government. Don’t the they see the connection?
The view of the Hoya reflects an unfortunate yet common attitude among DC residents who work in or cover national politics (or, as the case may be, aspire to do so): namely, that local politics is bush league. That it’s something to be concerned about only when there’s a scandal. That all that matters is the epic battle between the national parties to control Congress and the White House. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Local politics do matter. As David Alpert wrote at GGW recently: “If you live in the District, you should vote here. It’s the right thing to do. It gives you a stronger voice in local affairs.” For students in particular these local affairs can dramatically affect their daily lives. Don’t like MPD’s new noise policy? Want better public transportation to your internship? Want your school to not be forced by the Zoning Commission to house you on campus? The people making all these decisions answer to local politicians, the same politicians you could throw out of office if you organized.
Registering to vote in DC carries with it the added price of removing your (tiny) voice from Congress. And there’s no way around it: that sucks. But removing your relatively larger voice from the local conversation based upon the statistically improbably chance that your vote might be decisive back home is just delusional.