As a political science major at SUNY Cortland, senior Austen Johnson is very engaged in political activism, but what he found this year was that his peers are increasingly involved, too.
Johnson stopped by Neubig Hall on Tuesday morning, Election Day, to watch his fellow students try to encourage people to vote. He had just overheard a conversation, one student urging a friend to vote.
“It gives me hope that we are starting to get better,” he said. “The problem is students aren’t as active as we should be, but I would say politics nationally are very polarized at the moment and things are heated so that is generating more interest.”
Johnson is an intern for the Institute for Civic Engagement, so ahead of Tuesday’s elections he was educating people about the importance of voting.
Many students were receptive to the message.
Freshman Demitreus Henry was leaving an information table set up in Neubig Hall by the New York Public Interest Research Group, and he was prepared to vote later that day.
“I’m not too big on politics, but I know my vote counts and my opinion matters,” said Henry, who registered to vote on campus a few weeks before the elections.
The motivation among young voters was part of a larger movement: Voter turnout in Cortland County for Tuesday’s mid-term elections was up nearly 32 percent from the mid-term elections four years ago, the last time a governor’s race was on the ballot. Nearly 15,800 voted for a gubernatorial candidate, up from about 12,000.
Ethan Gormley, the project coordinator for the SUNY Cortland chapter of New York Public Interest Research Group, was manning the table at Neubig Hall and had volunteers stop students on their way to and from classes to make sure they knew where the polling station was and who was on the ballot.
“Let everyone know they should be voting on election day, it’s an exciting day for students,” Gormley said.
Johnson has found in canvassing young voters that they are very concerned about the environment and also gun control. But influencing the decision requires engagement.
“Local elections, the decision sometimes comes down to a couple hundred votes,” he said. “If you and 100 other students vote, you start to influence stuff.”
Johnson has been backing a campus movement to form a chapter of GenVote, to mobilize students to get involved in local issues and support candidates.
Sophomore Katherine Breton, wearing a sticker showing she had just voted, paused to let Gormley take a photo for a social media campaign urging young people to vote.
“I feel like it’s important for our voices to be heard and for us to be aware of what’s going on in our country and the world and be able to control it,” she said. Her top topics: civil rights, immigration, the Black Lives Matter movement and climate change.