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Make ’em Sit Up and Take Notice

Michael J. Ring

You’ve now registered for your classes.

But have you registered to vote?

Many of you have probably answered no to that question. But you’ll find a number of people -- and hopefully a number of reasons -- to convince you that the answer to that question should be yes.

As you probably know, Erik C. Snowberg ’99 is a candidate for Cambridge City Council. Snowberg, who is a Tech staffer, is hoping student turnout at the polls this November will propel him to victory.

He has some reason to be optimistic. Some estimates cite Cambridge’s students as comprising up to 25 percent of the city’s population. A bloc of voters this large should be able to support at least one city councilor, particularly considering Cambridge’s unique voting system of proportional representation. Currently, there is no student representation on the Council.

Unfortunately, students traditionally are among the most apathetic blocs of voters, both in this city and nationwide. And in an off-year municipal election without a marquee national or state race to raise voter interest, turnout, especially among young voters, may be depressed even further below the typical, abysmal figures.

There are myriad arguments why you should vote, and appeals to civic duty and good citizenry are often cited as reasons to do so. Ultimately, pragmatic arguments may be more persuasive.

Politicians have limited time, resources, and political capital, so in order to gain reelection they have to satisfy constituencies that ultimately will vote. For politicians, currying favor with heavy-voting blocs such as the elderly is a matter of survival. Catering to students’ concerns has traditionally done little to forward that goal, since so few students vote. A group that votes may gain respect from elected representatives; a group that doesn’t is certain to see politicians ignore their concerns. Snowberg hopes to transform students from the latter type of group to the former.

There are many issues of concern in Cambridge today -- affordable housing and expanded public transportation seem of particular interest to students. Politicians will be deaf to students’ pleas on these issues unless students back their bark with bite.

Galvanizing the electorate for a local election is another major hurdle; many in the electorate only vote in national or state elections. But again, there are important reasons for voting in a local election.

The issues decided at the lowest level of government are usually the issues that affect the quality of our everyday life. Items such as trash pickup, the conservation of city greenspace, and local crime watches can often have a greater effect on the health of a city than anything from Washington or the state capitals. The decisions made by city and town councils have enormous impact on their respective jurisdictions, and voters should give these issues their due weight and consideration.

Another important consideration with regard to voting in local elections is the relative worth of a vote. One of the most common complaints voiced by those cynical of our democratic process is that an individual vote is meaningless. When federal representatives hold seats of 600,000 and states with populations in the millions have only two senators, the scale seems immense. On the municipal level, however, even a few votes can make a gigantic difference. Snowberg cites the case of Cambridge City Councilor Henrietta Davis, who gained office in 1997 with only 926 first-place votes.

Finally, Snowberg argues that students should register here in Cambridge instead of in their hometowns. He believes that students must register en masse here to exploit fully their ability to effect policy as a bloc, and that it is more difficult for students to keep track of events back home than it is here. Obviously, it is in his political interest that you register here.

I disagree with him here, at least on the second assertion. With the advent of the Internet, obtaining news and information for even the most remote parts of this nation has become quite simple. The vast majority of newspapers have web sites; television stations often post their nightly news programs on the Internet as well.

There can be good reason for keeping registration at one’s home address. I, for example, am not registered in Cambridge but in my hometown. In the past year alone, my town has been faced with a $105 million lawsuit from a neighboring town over sewer rights, a scathing report criticizing our police department’s practices, and an acrimonious dispute over the attempted seizure of an elderly resident’s property by eminent domain for conservation land. Those are critical issues in the town on which I wish to retain a voice.

Some students are understandably concerned that registering in Massachusetts jeopardizes their residency or ability to receive state financial aid. In most cases it does not; your secretary of state’s office can answer the specifics for your state. In addition, registering to vote will not increase your chances of being called for jury duty.

Ultimately, it is your decision whether registering to vote at home or in Cambridge has more importance to you. But whether interests here in Cambridge or in your hometown are more important to you, the only way to raise your voice on these issues -- and to get politicians to listen to your opinions -- is to vote. Given that many college-age students aren’t registered and don’t vote in the first place, the acts of registering and voting anywhere are major steps forward for a more functional and vibrant democracy.