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Staff Ed: Civic participation means voting — and so much more

In the weeks and months leading up to the midterm election taking place on Tuesday, Nov. 6, media outlets have buzzed about its immense importance, given the potential ramifications of a Democratic majority in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. Tireless get-out-the-vote efforts have attempted to boost voter turnout, and UMBC is no exception.

Everyone on UMBC’s campus who is eligible should exercise their right to vote. However, students for whom voting in this election is an isolated instance of civic participation are missing the point.

Despite the opportunity to contribute to electing leaders who represent their values, there are many reasons people give for not voting. David Hoffman, director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Life on campus, has heard his fair share, but he remains unconvinced.

For instance, many people do not vote because they do not believe that they could possibly tip the scales. “I think there are lots of good reasons to vote that aren’t about being the one vote that shapes the outcome,” Hoffman rebuts. “Part of what happens when you vote is that you’re counted.”

Indeed, strong voter turnout among particular demographics can send a powerful message to politicians, especially when their preferences for certain candidates highlight the issues with which those social groups are concerned.

This is one reason why it is so important for UMBC students, in particular, to vote in this election: they are part of a group of young people that are beginning to find their political voice, and communicating to government leaders exactly what they believe in could help to chart a course for a future tailored to the kind of change for which they yearn. In addition, UMBC’s diverse community spans cultural and socioeconomic divides; by voting, every student has a chance to tell politicians, with the voice of each demographic the student represents, what issues are important to them.

This year, programs that UMBC has put in place — from free transportation to early voting sites to voter registration and pledge drives — make it more likely than ever that students will send those messages at the ballot box. However, students would do well to work towards bettering their community more than once every two years and in more ways than just voting.

The Dinner with Friends event, held by a multitude of campus departments and student organizations in the weeks before this year’s election, exemplified this kind of holistic participation in the context of the voting season. Rather than allowing the election to become a divisive event where students stuck to their respective political corners, Dinner with Friends invited students into a bipartisan conversation.

“A lot of times, when it comes to divisive issues, if we go to appear and try to argue a point, that’s when conflict can arise easily,” says Romy Hübler, assistant director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Life. “Dinner with Friends is the idea that you connect the issue to your own lived experiences and listen to other people’s experiences with the same issue.”

While the event encouraged understanding among the community, such engagement is by no means required to be overtly political.

Civic participation beyond voting can take many forms. For some, it might mean working with organizations like SGA that make decisions about how the UMBC community will function. For others, it might mean working with groups like We Believe You and the campus chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which hold forums and disseminate information regarding pertinent issues while advocating for those the issues affect.

For still others, community service might imply exactly what it seems to, demanding that students reach out to the area surrounding UMBC through service. It is also important to remember that meaningful civic action can happen on the individual level through positive relationships, conversations and acts of kindness.

Hoffman insists that as individuals we can exercise great power over the communities in which we exist. The Center for Democracy and Civic Life is founded on the idea of helping students fully embrace that truth, “that sense of being a producer of UMBC and not just a consumer of it,” Hoffman explains. “And if you’re experiencing that every day, I think voting is something that you do very naturally rather than having to be persuaded.”