After voting early by mail, Alexi Lindeman ‘26 took advantage of canceled classes Tuesday to attend a wisdom teeth consultation appointment and get her passport photo taken. Then, she returned to campus to finish homework. All in all, a relatively productive Democracy Day.
A year after Stanford established Democracy Day as a university-wide initiative to promote civic engagement, some students have observed a disconnect with the original goal. One day isn’t enough to re-prioritize classwork and extracurriculars, leaving them feeling slightly disengaged.
Democracy Day is set to take place on the first Tuesday of each November, even in years without federal elections. In charge of coordinating the events is a coordinating committee of staff advisors and liaisons from campus groups such as Stanford in Government (SIG) and StanfordVotes.
According to StanfordVotes, 91% of registered students cast a ballot in 2020. Student leaders hope to see similar rates of engagement in Tuesday’s midterms, which historically had have lower turnout.
Democracy Day was the result of a “months-long, campus-wide campaign to encourage voters to heed their civic duty this election day,” a university statement explained.
However, students like Gabriel Frank-McPheter ‘26 said they noticed a lack of student engagement and no big rallies or major events preceding this year’s Democracy Day. “It seems that the majority of the student body is somewhat disengaged. It doesn’t feel like these elections are as important as they should be,” Frank-McPheter said, adding that he was expecting “a little more activism.”
Christopher Maximos ‘23, operations director for the coordinating committee and chair for SIG, attributed the lack of programming prior to Democracy Day as a strategic decision. Maximos said the committee wanted students to come on Nov. 8 ready to engage on the day with “maximum bandwidth.”
“[Voting] is about controlling an important institution in our country, so we wanted to make sure to center voting. Ultimately, this is an event about the election and not just soft civics,” Maximos said.
Cameron Lange ‘24, co-president of Stanford Democrats, said the club organized a few phone banks and door-knocking opportunities to get out the vote before Tuesday. Although the events were open to everyone, Lange acknowledged that alerts were sent to the club’s mailing lists, so students who aren’t on the list might not have known they were happening.
Students who were registered vote to California had the chance to vote on issues like adding abortion rights to the state Constitution, taxing millionaires and legalizing sports betting. On a nationwide scale, this year’s midterm elections will fill 35 of the 100 Senate seats and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, deciding which political party controls Congress.
Over the years, Stanford transformed from one of the country’s least civically engaged campuses to a national leader. There was a dramatic increase in the share of Stanford students voting in the 2018 midterms compared with 2014. The voting rate more than doubled, from 16.9% of eligible students in 2014 to 42.7% in 2018.
This year’s Democracy Day included slightly larger iterations of last year’s events in an attempt to include a larger portion of the campus. For instance, more faculty were involved in planning this year than the previous year, Maximos said.
Professor James Hamilton, chair of the Department of Communication, said he looks forward to discussing “the role that reporting plays in public affairs” with three Distinguished Career Institute Fellows and students in his “Perspectives in American Journalism” course.
According to Tom Schnaubelt, senior advisor on civic education in the Deliberative Democracy Lab, the sense of student disengagement could be because university leaders, faculty and staff haven’t emphasized learning opportunities on the ballot issues and about democratic system more generally prior to Democracy Day.
However, it may be that students should drive a change in engagement by leading these events themselves, Schnaubelt said.
“Fundamentally, I think the reason people don’t engage is that they don’t believe in or trust institutions. We must find ways to rebuild trust in institutions,” he said. “That will require strong leadership that is willing to imaginatively create new processes and structures that allow people to deliberate and weigh in on important issues in real and meaningful ways.”
Instead of attending the on-campus events, Lindeman chose to spend the day off-campus after voting prior to Tuesday.
“I didn’t expect a bunch of different fliers saying ‘Vote for this person!’ I did expect a bit more educational material to educate people that they didn’t just have to vote on the day of,” Lindeman said.
Students Akio Shirali ‘26 and Delali Bruce ‘26 chose to use the day without classes to study.
As an international student, Shirali was ineligible to vote in this election. He spent the day catching up on work and fulfilling a class requirement to attend his professor’s office hours.
Bruce echoed Shirali’s point, adding that she was preparing to vote regardless of the dedicated day off from classes, but appreciated the university’s commitment to civic engagement.
“I voted and did homework,” Bruce said. “[Without Democracy Day] I definitely would have had less time to do the research and go to the voting booth because I would have had classes today.”