“Voting is our civic duty.” This sort of rationale can seem awfully abstract to a graduate student who has multiple class assignments due this week and is being hounded by their advisor about an impending paper deadline. Taking time out of your busy day to register, apply for an absentee ballot, research candidates, and go vote may all seem like daunting tasks to a graduate student whose bandwidth is already maxed out. At the many voter registration booths I've manned over the years as graduate co-chair of MITvote, I have frequently heard these concerns and all their variants. However, making your voice heard through voting is not part of some distant, external civic sphere that can be ignored. Your vote (or decision not to vote) not only has an impact on a multitude of issues with broad effects on our society, but also on personal aspects of your life ranging from your research, to your cost of living, to the very nature of our MIT community.
As a student at MIT and a member of the broader academic community, reasons for you to vote are abundant and clear. Even a cursory look at our nation's COVID response or the discourse surrounding climate change clearly shows that our society could greatly benefit from the increased input of experts from the scientific and engineering community. Despite this obvious conclusion, STEM majors voted at the lowest rate of any field of study in the 2016 election and STEM professionals make up only a small fraction of Congress. These facts are particularly concerning given that legislators are tasked with monumental issues like regulating Big Tech and addressing natural disasters. It is also clear that our generation faces unique challenges, including massive student debt and spiraling wealth inequality, that our legislators are not adequately addressing. Yet, despite the dire need for input from young people, we still vote at the lowest rate of any age group. These troublingly low participation numbers are not entirely our fault—on top of the opaque and byzantine processes surrounding voter registration and voting by mail, many states across the country are actively trying to suppress the college student vote through voter-ID laws and the closure of polling places.
Beyond these broader societal concerns, voting makes an impact on our day-to-day lives as graduate students at MIT. The funding of federal agencies (National Science Foundation, NASA, National Institutes of Health, and others) that support many of our graduate student researchers is controlled by legislators whom we elect. The ever-increasing cost of living in Cambridge can be addressed by City Councilors whom we vote for. The immigration status of our friends and colleagues in the MIT community is subject to the policies of the executive branch (as we saw with the recent ICE policy regarding international students), which is headed by the President we elect. The reasons to vote range from the broad to the personal, from the moral to the practical, from sweeping societal issues to ones that affect only specific problems. Each one of these reasons is important. Together, they are all vital to our lives, our communities and our democracy, and should be met with urgency and motivation.
Even once you’re determined to vote, going about the process can seem daunting. Luckily there are easily accessible aids to guide you through each part of this important process. The first step is to register. MITvote provides clear instructions on how to register in Massachusetts, or use the user-friendly Turbovote service to complete this process for any state in the country. Next, it's important to know the dates and deadlines for voting by mail, early voting, and voting on election day in your state, all of which can be found at Vote411. Knowledgeable students at MITvote are also available to provide individual assistance with any questions you may have on the process.
Even among those who are registered to vote, I’ve encountered many MIT students who say that they are “not informed enough to vote.” This can easily be rectified through a 10-minute google search, using resources such as ballotpedia, endorsements from organizations or individuals that share your values, or voter guides from groups like the MIT Graduate Student Council. Note that voters across the country who are less informed than you vote confidently and regularly without question; as a student at MIT, you can trust in your research skills to help you find the information you need to decide whom to vote for. Use your skills as a digital native and critical thinker to seek out information and add your voice as an educated young person to our national conversation!
Even if you are not a U.S. citizen, you can still play an important role in our civic life. Make your voice heard through contacting your representatives as one of their constituents, advocating at all levels of government, and volunteering your time (as long as you are uncompensated) on political campaigns. The Graduate Student Council External Affairs Board actively encourages the participation of international students in their advocacy, and these students’ efforts have an impact at the state and federal level.
In 2020, the Presidency, hundreds of congressional seats, and critical state and local offices will be on the ballot across the country. As a graduate student whose research funding, campus community, and day-to-day life are affected by elections at all levels, you must vote to have your voice heard. As a member of the MIT community, you should stand up and inject the much-needed views of the scientific community into our national conversation. As a member of a generation of young people who face some of the toughest and farthest-reaching challenges in our nation’s history, you should cast your vote for those who are willing to work to bring about the changes we need. We each have different motivations and issues that are important to us, but it is essential that we all make our voices heard and stand up for our values, community and democracy by casting our vote in 2020!