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Fixing the Political Machinery

Joel Rosenberg

There's an old joke about a Harvard grad and an MIT grad who are slated for execution by guillotine. The Harvard grad tries to talk his way out of it and fails, as would happen in any joke found in the MIT student paper. But as he lies waiting for decapitation, fate steps in, the blade jams, and his life is spared. The MIT grad, up next, approaches the executioner and says, "I think I see what the problem is."

Here at MIT we're trained to fix and improve things, often in ways others are unable to see, using methods others haven't thought of. Analogies are often quite helpful for understanding how things work. Taking the guillotine as an analogy for the government, the time has come for us to step in where Harvard has failed. To this end Ihave formed a group, Political Silence, that has begun working with administrators in an effort to get the entire MIT student community registered to vote.

Students generally don't vote because they don't think they can make a difference. Registration drives that have a single person behind a table, waiting and hoping to be approached, only reinforce this perception of futility. An article in The Tech a few years ago specifically discussed the political apathy on campus during the 1996 presidential election ["MIT Apathy Prevails This Political Season," Nov. 5, 1996].

To counter this, we want to register every student en masse. One idea is to distribute Massachusetts voter registration forms along with class registration forms, and have a collection box on Registration Day. A web site with information on how to vote in absentee for every state would be provided for those who want to keep ties back home. Another idea is to link such a site off the MIT home page, and from there connect to NetVote '98, the new online voter registration page sponsored by the American Association of Retired Persons, Rock The Vote, and MCI at http://www.netvote98.mci.com/.

The inspiration for this effort came from a Boston Phoenix article, "How students can take over City Hall" [Sept. 25, 1997], by Michael Crowley. The article, written right before Tom Menino's unopposed "race" for mayor, described just what it would take to get a student into that office. In 1993, Menino was elected with 74,778 votes, about 16 percent of the city's voting-age population, which is pretty pathetic. If Boston's estimated 84,831 students had voted, they could have been kingmakers.

Granted, the majority of MITstudents reside in Cambridge, but if this registration program were to spread to other area colleges (of which there are a few), it might be possible to "radically alter the character of the city," which Crowley describes: a big city nightlife, extended MBTAhours, improved housing laws, and an overhaul of the resident-parking regulations, a nemesis of Boston students.

The fact is, students barely vote at all. Boston City Councilor Brian Honan said during a hearing on binge drinking in October, "It's time to shut off the drinking in Boston."["Underage Drinking Probed by Council," Oct. 10 1997] That's a strange statement coming from the the councilor who represents the huge student population in Allston-Brighton. And it's even stranger considering Honan only won by 250 votes in 1995. It shows how politicians know that students are not the hands that feed them.

Fellow Boston City Councilor Tom Keane points out, "I've learned just how much, as a politician, you need to pay attention to the people who vote. And if people don't vote, then the reality is that politicians don't pay attention to them." Keane represents the student-filled Fenway and parts of the Back Bay, including many MIT fraternities. He won by a mere 27 votes in 1995.

On the day that President Clinton is visiting our campus discussing technology, our specialty, we want the community to start thinking about politics. This is an effort to get students involved in the community they call home for several years, and to stand up for what they believe in. Returning back to that joke, the perfect ending is the MIT grad incorporates a safety into his redesign that allows him to control the machine if the need arises. He can even save the Harvard grad if he feels like it. Of course, I bet a Georgetown grad would be able to talk his way out of it.