Finding Your Voice
Story by Kera Wanielista // Photos by Paul Moore
The sparkle of fireworks lit up the sky as students waived American flags and people danced in the streets. Crowds erupted into chants of "Yes we can! Yes we did!" Finally, after two long years of campaigns, the votes were tallied. For some, the results restored their belief in the power of voting.
Growing up, politics wasn't a big topic at Courtney Steffy's house. As far as she knew, her parents didn't vote, and didn't want to.
"Politics is just politics," her parents would say.
It wasn't her parents who sparked her interest in politics, Steffy says, but her high school government teacher, Mrs. Hall.
Hall informed the students about voting. She explained how easy and important voting is, gave them statistics on how many Americans do and don't vote, and included how that affects the overall election.
"I'd never really heard anything like that because my parents were so apathetic," Steffy says. "So I guess that was an eye-opening experience."
Taking Hall's political lessons to heart, Steffy carried her interest to Western. She got excited about her candidate of choice for the 2008 presidential election, after educating herself on the choices, and to show her support became the president of the Obama Vikings club on campus.
Sitting in a plush arm-chair in her south campus apartment, the blue-eyed brunette radiates enthusiasm as she talks about the effort her group put forth to get people registered to vote, a process that she says was mostly easy, with a few exceptions.
"The funniest part was when my roommate and I were out trying to register voters and we asked this girl, 'Hey, are you registered to vote?' and she goes 'nope!' and she started walking away fast," says Steffy. "So we were like, 'Do you want to get registered?' and she was like 'nope!' and she ran away. She was super excited about not being registered."
Steffy brought her contagious passion to her new residence. One of the first things she did when she moved in to her apartment was to paint a sign on her window: "Are you registered 2 vote?"
According to a recent poll conducted by Newsweek, President George W. Bush's approval rating has dropped to 23 percent. Bush's highest approval rating was in October 2001, when 88 percent of Americans felt he was doing a good job. The numbers have steadily decreased since then as many Americans have become dissatisfied with their government over the last eight years. People were ready for a change. So entered Barack Obama ("The Change We Need,") and John McCain ("Country First: Reform, Prosperity, Peace,") who both ran on platforms of change.
Higher education is one of the issues both candidates promised to change. Obama's plan is to pay $4,000 worth of tuition to each student who will in exchange perform 100 community service hours. Community college would be almost free for avid volunteers.
McCain wanted to reform the financial aid system, consolidating programs and making it easier for students to apply for aid, while lowering taxes for families sending their children to college.
At the state level, Washington voters literally held lives in their hands. Initiative 1000, the Death with Dignity Act, allowed voters to decide whether terminally ill patients could administer themselves fatal drugs.
Members of the Obama Vikings spent between the first week of school and the first week of October tabling at the Info Fair and on Vendors Row, registering students to vote. Steffy says more than 1,000 students were registered by different groups on campus, at least 300 of those by the Obama Vikings.
Associated Students President Erik Lowe says more students are getting involved because they know they can make a difference.
"I think students are realizing how much power a vote really has," Lowe says.
The economic crisis and the wars in the Middle East are two issues Lowe says really stood out to young people who wanted to vote for the candidate they thought would resolve these issues more responsibly.
"Young people are the ones fighting these wars and young people are going to be the ones who have to deal with this economic crisis," Lowe says.
For Steffy, the war in Iraq is one of the more important issues in this election. When her sister, Brandi, joined the U.S. Army Reserve a year and a half ago, none of her family expected she would actually be deployed. But with Brandi's departure to Iraq in October, her well-being is currently at the forefront of Steffy's concerns.
"The Iraq war still seemed so distant," Steffy says. "I wanted us out of the Iraq war, but for no real reason until my sister was in, then I started looking into it and I started realizing how scared I was that she was going to do it."
On the opposite side of campus from Steffy, Mathes Hall residents also attempted to get people involved in this year's election. Seven fourth-floor rooms participated in the hanging of a make-shift McCain banner; six sporting a letter from his name and the seventh his picture.
"Having the word 'McCain' up was intended to get people thinking," Jeff Smith, fourth-floor president, says. "It was intended to help people to be worldly and think from more than one perspective; to improve the political well-being of campus students."
Although the participants were predominantly Obama supporters, Smith says the floor was concerned there was an anti-republican sentiment on campus. They weren't interested in swaying people's votes; they just wanted people to remember that there were two candidates for the election.
Smith says he heard some people laugh, question, even scoff at the sign. He was worried people were taking it too seriously. All they hoped to do was get students questioning the political atmosphere, not to change people's minds. As a result, Smith says he saw more Obama gear around.
"Which is a very good thing," Smith says. "For people to be proud of their own thoughts and choices is definitely a good thing."
Lack of support for McCain is something other students, like Jeff Williams had also noticed. Williams walks around campus with a button on his backpack. On the button is a caricature of Obama with a circle around it and a line through it.
Regardless of whether students were McCain supporters like him, or Obama supporters, like much of the rest of campus, Williams says young people need to vote.
"That's what frustrates me a little bit is people out there who aren't registered. I want as many people to vote as possible," Williams says.
Williams uses the 2000 presidential election and the previous governor's race to illustrate the importance of voting. He says in the last race Gore won the popular election by only 500 votes. Gregoire won by only 129.
"I probably know 129 people who didn't vote," Williams says. "That's crazy. Out of the entire state it came down to that."
To help students with the voting process, from registration to information, Western has established a campaign called Western Votes. Conceived in 2006, President Lowe says the campaign has dramatically increased during the past two years. The goal is to inform more people, especially incoming freshman, about the elections and to increase voter turnout.
"We were hoping to [make] voting more cool on campus," Lowe says. "Because Western traditionally had had really low voter turnout numbers, just like pretty much every college in America."
Lowe says the tradition of low young voter turnout stems back from both parties not encouraging young people to vote and voting not being very popular.
"Part of it is a stigma of being un-cool and nerdy," Lowe says.
In the '90s, Lowe says voting became more popular when MTV and "Rock the Vote" got involved and reached out to young people to make them realize their vote mattered just as much as anybody else's.
There are currently 115,314 registered voters in the county, says Whatcom County Auditor Shirley Forslof. Twelve percent are between the ages of 18 to 24. Forslof says this is the largest number of voters Whatcom County has had. In the general election, 100, 911 young, registered voters actually voted.
"Everyone knows so well that [voting] is our right that they just think it happens automatically," Steffy says.
Steffy says any participation is good participation when it comes to the election. Whether it is her pro-Obama sister in the Reserves, or her 10-year-old brother's passionate anti-Obama sentiments at dinner, Steffy's passion has spread contagiously among her family, and she's excited to see it spread elsewhere too.
This year's voter participation paid off enormously for Obama supporters. Young
people turned out in droves to make their voices heard.
"I've put so much work into [this election], it doesn't feel like it's over yet," Steffy says. "It still feels like I have to fight for it. And then I think about it and it's like, 'We did it!'"