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Letter to the community: Voting is a civic duty

Dean Stephan Graham co-authored an op-ed with the deans of the School of Humanities and Sciences and the School of Engineering urging readers to "vote for the party and candidate of your choice, but by all means vote."

ClockSeptember 27, 2020

As the three deans responsible for overseeing the education of the largest number of Stanford’s students, including all of its undergraduates, we write again, in a presidential election year, to urge you, regardless of your political affiliation, to register and to exercise your right to vote.

Our right to vote is hard won. It took centuries of struggle to establish this right — for property-less men, for African American men, for women and, in 1971, for all U.S. citizens over the age of 18. The right to vote is fundamental to protecting, asserting and expanding our other rights. Almost all of the social and economic rights Americans enjoy today — including Medicare and Medicaid, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Clean Air Act — exist because citizens elected public officials who voted to enact them.

But low numbers of American citizens exercise their right to vote and, unfortunately, voters in the 18-29 age range are less likely to vote than any other qualified age group. Stanford students, faculty and staff have been working hard to increase voter turnout, which was very low in some earlier election cycles. According to the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement (NSLVE), only 48.1% of eligible Stanford undergraduates, graduates and post-doctoral fellows voted in the 2016 presidential election. NSLVE calculated that less than 20% voted in the 2014 mid-term elections. Because of the hard work of many people at Stanford, voter registration among students had a jump up in 2018. But we can do even better. If you have not yet registered to vote, please do so as soon as possible because state deadlines are approaching. Just go to: https://www.stanfordvotes.org/.


Here, we offer five main reasons for voting:

  1. We build and sustain our democracy with votes. Through our votes, we express what we as citizens think is in our collective interests; we empower officials to act in our name to promote those interests.
  2. It’s the power of the vote that keeps our elected officials accountable.
  3. If only some people vote, elected officials are likely to give less weight to the interests and views of non-participants. Studies show that young voters, along with citizens with lower levels of income and education, are less likely to vote.
  4. It is sometimes said that no one person’s vote makes a decisive difference. But each person’s vote makes our democracy more representative of the will of its citizens. In close local elections, small numbers of votes can be decisive.
  5. Our country (and our world) faces very significant challenges that require the action of government: climate change, inequality, racial injustice, global conflict, terrorism and poverty. Individual action, however well motivated, cannot compare to what can be accomplished by the actions of large state institutions. It is essential for you as a citizen to vote on the basis of your informed views about those candidates who offer the best public policy responses to these challenges.

This fall, the School of Humanities and Sciences is also sponsoring a series of panels bringing faculty expertise to bear on some of the issues that U.S. democracy confronts today. You can view and register for the series here (you are free to join any of the sessions). At the first session approximately 1000 Stanford students, faculty and staff tuned in.

Of course, you can certainly do more — along with others, including those U.S. immigrants who are not eligible to vote — to help to make our society and our world better. We do not mean to suggest that the only way for you to be involved in questions of public concern is by means of a vote. But it is a way, and perhaps the most important way.

So, vote for the party and candidate of your choice, but by all means vote.

Debra Satz, Dean, School of Humanities and Sciences
Jennifer Widom, Dean, School of Engineering
Stephan Graham, Dean, School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences

This op-ed was originally published at The Stanford Daily

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