Just two weeks ago, Phil Murphy, a democratic candidate for governor of New Jersey, stopped in West Windsor along his campaign trail.
Fellow editor Samantha Sawh and I went to the event as part of a project for our environmental policy class. I walked into this town hall forum thinking of it merely as something I was doing for a grade, but ended up feeling empowered by what Murphy had to say about changing our state for the better. I took away more than I thought I would just by attending one campaign event.
To my surprise, the room was also filled with college students who came on their own because they wanted to be there to support Murphy and the issues on his platform — Sam and I were surrounded by student College Democrat clubs from Princeton University, Mercer County Community College and The College of New Jersey.
Seeing other students at the forum gave me a glimmer of hope for our generation’s involvement in state government, and I hope that more students start doing the same. Our generation, specifically the 18 to 24-year-old demographic, is generally not present in state-level elections.
We all talked about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in November, but when I mentioned then-Congressional candidate Josh Gottheimer to a friend who lived in my legislative district, I found myself feeling disappointed when he had no idea who Gottheimer was. It was a contentious race in our district that year, in which Gottheimer was running against the incumbent, Scott Garrett, who was under fire for homophobic comments.
I thought to myself, we all care about issues, but over the past year, we became used to talking about them in the context of the presidential election. I have a couple of friends who lean to the left partially because they are LGBT or support LGBT rights. Yet, they overlooked the congressional candidates and almost let a homophobic candidate get back into office. The options were right there in front of them, somewhere under Clinton and Trump’s names on the ballot on Nov. 8.
Now, with another election coming up, I’m starting to feel the same frustration again. A state election is less than 8 months away, so maybe it’s too early to make this observation, but outside of my political science classes and Phil Murphy’s forum, I haven’t heard any of my friends discussing gubernatorial candidates.
Political science professor Benjamin Dworkin, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, said the key to mobilizing young voters is talking about the issues we care about, such as college tuition aid and civil rights.
“The overall economy might be important for everyone, but it’s hard to talk tax policy with a 20-year-old,” Dworkin said. “You have to have a candidate who’s going to target these voters and talk about issues that resonate with them.”
Dworkin said candidates can also use college-aged “surrogates” to appeal to our generation.
“I suspect that we’ll see candidates who are looking for volunteers and campus organizers who are going to want people to talk them up and promote them here on this campus — if you have a peer who’s out there telling you why a candidate is the best and why they should be taken seriously, I think that would make a big difference.”
Voter turnout for state elections is low, especially among 18 to 24-year-olds. In the 2015 general election, in which seats for State Assembly and Senate were up, about 22 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls, according to the N.J. Department of State. Whether numbers at the polls will increase for state elections after President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Dworkin said, is “a big maybe.”
“A gubernatorial year like 2017 will see the next highest [turnout], but it will still be about 50 percent of registered voters as opposed to 70 percent, like in a presidential year,” said Dworkin. “This means one out of two registered voters won’t show up. And a large portion of that will be college students who don’t quite get their act together, to go home, or to re-register and then actually make it to the polls.”
At this time, when many students are angered by the outcome of the 2016 election, becoming more involved in state politics is an excellent way to channel that energy and be proactive. Just by attending one campaign event and then comparing different gubernatorial candidates’ platforms, I heightened my awareness of our state’s key issues, such as opioid addictions, tax reform, environmental protection and the need for more resources for veterans, just to name a few.
We all want to make a difference by fighting for nationwide issues we care about, but there’s so much to do within our own state borders.
The weekly editorial expresses the majority opinion of The Rider News. This week’s editorial was written by the Social Media Editor, Gianluca D’Elia.
Printed in the 3/1/17 issue.