When Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire Democratic primary on Feb. 9, Miranda Rosenblum was ecstatic to talk politics with friends in the dining hall but soon found that the conversation at the lunch table wasn't about the election; it was about the warm weather.
This is a common trend, Rosenblum said, indicative of a campus where political activism seems out of the norm and apathy widespread. On March 1 — otherwise known as “Super Tuesday” — Virginia and 11 other states will hold primaries, but Rosenblum and other student leaders are uncertain that their peers will even vote.
Rosenblum, the former secretary of the College Democrats, is troubled by a perceived lack of political engagement on campus, citing the Roosevelt Institute, a once-thriving progressive group on campus that was disbanded last year because of insufficient student interest, much like the libertarian group Young Americans for Liberty, which disbanded over the summer for the same reason.
The College Democrats, Rosenblum said, are planning to focus volunteer efforts — in the form of door-knocking and phone-calling with the Bernie Sanders campaign — off campus in Richmond and its surrounding suburbs. Students, Rosenblum said, are harder to convince.
“People might not go out and vote for the primary,” Rosenblum said. “That’s a tough one to get people to go out to vote for.”
Stephanie Zemanek, the chairwoman of the College Republicans, agreed with Rosenblum that it was difficult to encourage students to vote in the primaries. The group’s outreach efforts, Zemanek said, consisted mostly of reminder emails to its members, who she said are more likely to go to the polls. But the group does hold monthly registration drives in conjunction with the Republican Party of Virginia, tabling in the commons and encouraging other students to vote.
Abby Lavalley, a junior who recently founded a university chapter of No Labels — a nonpartisan political group focused on economics, entitlement programs and energy policies — took a less activist stance. The group will hold pizza parties to walk students through the registration process, but it will not pressure anyone to vote. Students are not as likely to take part in a primary election, Lavalley said.
“Many students may not feel ready to register with a party yet and make that decision,” she said.
Aaron Brown, a senior, will not be voting on Super Tuesday.
“Politics in my mind should bring people together, but I feel that they tear people apart,” he said. “This isn’t the general election. This is just another method of people analyzing who’s most popular.”
Glyn Hughes, the director of Common Ground, has been at the university for 14 years. Students’ lack of engagement is due in part to the lack of visibility of political groups on campus, Hughes said.
“I don’t see electoral action,” Hughes said. “I know there’s a Young Dems or a Young Republicans, but I don’t see them. I don’t experience them. I think the visibility of that kind of stuff is part of what contributes to it seeming like an option or not.”
Daniel Palazzolo, who has been teaching political science at the university since 1989, said that political engagement on campus had to be assessed in a greater context.
“Student activity and politics and policy at the University of Richmond has kind of ebbed and flowed a little bit,” he said. “I think Obama engaged young people in a way that made them align with the Democratic Party. But I think that a lot of young people are saying, once again, politics isn’t the way to make change.”
Though professors could encourage students to vote and be politically active, Palazzolo said that work was the job of co-curricular institutions like the Center for Civic Engagement, which is leading the movement on campus to promote voting.
Colleen Connolly, the CCE’s fellow for events and mentoring, said the center had run a voter registration table in the commons. It also published a voter guide with information on the candidates and hosted debate watch parties, which it will continue to do.
But few students had taken advantage of the center’s offerings, Connolly said. She estimated that between 53 and 57 students had registered this semester, which she said was not a big number. Of those students, Connolly did not know how many were registered in Virginia, as the university does not collect that data.
Transportation services, Connolly said, also offers a shuttle to Westhampton Baptist Church, the polling place for students who live on campus. But it does so only for the general election, which will present a challenge for politically interested students without a means of transportation. One such student, Chris Sullivan, a sophomore, said that he and other students without cars would likely be kept from participating on Super Tuesday.
“Transportation to polls would be a great idea,” Sullivan said. “It would help reinvigorate a culture of political participation that’s been dying more with each generation.”
But Connolly doubted that the shuttle was used by many students for general elections, let alone the primary, and her instinct was correct. Nicki Pugh, the administrative assistant for parking and transportation services, said only 10 students had taken the shuttle in 2015, down from 17 students the year before.
Still, Zemanek and Lavalley had seen signs of hope. The College Republicans’ membership has increased, with about 30 students consistently attending meetings. Lavalley’s upstart organization already has 20 members. And there is no better time to encourage students to vote than during a presidential election, Rosenblum said.
“It only happens every four years, and we’re only here for four years, so this is it,” Rosenblum said. “This is the time to be very politically active, very politically interested. It’s very exciting to be able to capitalize on that as a campus.”
Contact reporter Damian Hondares at email@example.com