Achieve, Lead, Vote
I have written a number of times about the roles many of our Founding Fathers played in establishing and cultivating higher-education institutions, especially liberal-arts colleges. They believed that for a democratic republic to succeed, and ideally flourish, an informed electorate was a necessity. This was a stark contrast with the European model that carefully limited access to a university education to the elite as a way to centralize and protect power.
A decade before the American Revolution, John Adams shone a light on this strategy in A Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law:
The poor people, it is true, have been much less successful than the great. They have seldom found either leisure or opportunity to form a union and exert their strength; ignorant as they were of arts and letters, they have seldom been able to frame and support a regular opposition. This, however, has been known by the great to be the temper of mankind; and they have accordingly labored, in all ages, to wrest from the populace, as they are contemptuously called, the knowledge of their rights and wrongs, and the power to assert the former or redress the latter. I say RIGHTS, for such they have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government, — Rights, that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws -- Rights, derived from the great Legislator of the universe.
An educated electorate and citizenry were critical to the functionality of a democratic state. Like many aspects of our founding, practice fell far short of principle, and we perpetuated the sins of our fathers by limiting who counted as citizens and who possessed suffrage. In the 235 years that have unfolded since the Constitution defined whom we count and who can vote, we have seen a number of landmark efforts of progress.
· Thirteenth Amendment (1865) abolished slavery
· Fourteenth Amendment (1868) granted citizenship to formerly enslaved people
· Fifteenth Amendment (1870) prohibited race as a factor in voting rights
· Nineteenth Amendment (1920) granted the vote to women
· Twenty-third Amendment (1961) extended the right to vote for president to the residents of the District of Columbia
· Twenty-fourth Amendment (1964) prohibited poll taxes
· Twenty-sixth Amendment (1971) expanded the voting to those 18 years of age and older
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in our history. Fifty-seven years later, we see tensions building about voting access, and many states are adopting legislation that some see as protections against voter fraud and others see as an erosion of the progress of the past. Justifications proffered by those who support each side of the debate include that the 2020 election was arguably the most secure in history and that record numbers of voters participated.
One contributor to that last fact is an increase in voting among America’s college students. The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) reported the 66% of college students nationwide voted in the 2020 election, up from 50% in 2016. The turnout of the voting-age population in 2016 was 54.8%, and in 2020 it was 62%. So, in four years, college students went from trailing the population in voter participation by nearly 5% to leading it by 4%.
Some of that increase may reflect an increase in social and political engagement in this generation of students, but many colleges and universities have embraced the Founders’ commitment to fostering an enlightened and engaged electorate through efforts like the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, a non-partisan program led by Civic Nation.
Susquehanna University was the ALL IN most improved campus in Pennsylvania. 75% of our students voted in the 2020 election, qualifying us for ALL IN’s Gold Seal.
I am grateful to the many colleagues on campus who inspired and encouraged our students to exercise this important privilege through our “Achieve, Lead, Vote” campaign. We didn’t tell them for whom they should vote. We stressed the importance of being informed and participating, and I am so proud of our students for being such engaged citizens.
Democracy is at its best when the populace is engaged, well-informed, and fully represented.
 From John Adams: A Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law, 1765.