As the Constitutional Convention was wrapping up in 1787, a woman accosted Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin outside the doors of Independence Hall. She asked him, “Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
In this exchange, the Founding Father said citizens have a role to play. Unlike a monarchy, in which people are subjects who have no rights, a republic requires participation by its people. We, the people, need to learn about issues and vote for people to represent us; we need to pay attention to our government and ensure its officials are behaving in the public interest; in short, we cannot be bystanders.
The problem is that humans are not born with civic virtue. They need to learn how not to be bystanders, which is especially difficult when the world offers a million entertaining distractions. The Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University is committed to helping our youngest generations take part in keeping our republic. Given what we know, we will teach them the civic responsibility they need to keep fulfilling the promise of that founding.
In advance of the 2020 election, we collaborated with people across campus in the Political Engagement Coalition and asked students to become engaged in the political process. In a year that saw most of our classes happening in a virtual environment and in which we were not allowed to conduct in-person voter registration drives, we registered more than 1,000 students to vote. Seven of our athletic teams had 100% of their eligible voters registered, and 147 student-athletes pledged to vote, which was the highest number of all the campuses in the Big Sky Conference. Hundreds of our students, staff and alumni participated in community service projects from National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 22 to Election Day. Six teams of students and staff participated in the USHE Campus Cup Expedition Vote sponsored by the Lt. Gov.’s elections office.
It is not enough to vote; good citizenship requires political knowledge. In October, the institute hosted events explaining how vote-by-mail works in Utah, how collective problem solving requires extra vigilance in a democracy, and how to learn what you need to know to vote in judicial elections. The Walker Institute also co-hosted debate watches with the WSU debate director who taught people how and what to learn from the debate. We co-hosted, with the Weber County League of Women Voters, a candidate night, having invited all local and statewide candidates to attend. We also hosted a Weber County Commission debate. Dozens of students, faculty, staff and community members attended these events, in which no one was told how to vote, but everyone was given the tools to figure out how best to vote for themselves.
These are the highest numbers we have ever seen. People affiliated with WSU developed their civic virtue over the last couple of months. Our students were not alone. Young voters mobilized across the nation. According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), early estimates of turnout suggest that 52% of young people aged 18 to 29 voted, and when all the votes are counted, that may be as high as 56%. This year will be at least a 7% increase over 2016 and means that young voters made up 17% of the electorate.
In addition to turning out, young voters had a major impact on the results and may have delivered the presidency to Joe Biden. According to exit-poll data from The Associated Press, in battleground states, young voters went for Biden almost 2-to-1. In Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the young vote for Biden was larger than the margin of victory, and in Arizona, young voters delivered the Senate seat to Mark Kelly.
According to a CIRCLE survey, the top two issues driving young people were COVID-19 and the economy. For young people of color, racism was more important than the economy. Young voters who believed COVID-19 was the most important issue voted more for Biden, while those who were most concerned about the economy voted for Trump. They learned about the issues they cared about and voted for a candidate that best represented their interests.
The Walker Institute will continue to cultivate good citizenship in our community by making it possible for our citizens to have the political knowledge to participate fully in our republic. We will answer the charge from Dr. Franklin to keep it.