Column by Robert Valentine, senior lecturer of advertising
Less than one year ago, Murray State awarded an honorary doctorate to Constantine W. Curris at the December Commencement ceremony. The Curris Center bears his name, and many people mark a upward turn in Murray State’s growth and fame from his presidency. He served as the president of the Northern Iowa University, Clemson University and of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Now, some 43 years after he assumed his office at Murray State as the youngest college president in Kentucky history, it is a good time to recall part of the message he delivered to the graduating class of December 2015. Because it happened 11 months ago, some of the references to dates and current events will be a bit out of phase, but his message about what students should do to improve the world in which they live remains as well-put and pertinent as ever.
“Now . . .what should you — what must you — change? Everyone needs to fulfill his or her responsibilities as a citizen in this democracy, and that includes participating in local, state and national elections. In last month’s statewide elections in Kentucky, only 30 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. Seven out of 10 Kentuckians chose not to exercise their constitutional right to select their representatives.
One year ago (2014), nationwide, only 36 percent of eligible voters went to the polls to elect their senators and representatives. That was the lowest turnout in congressional election in 70 years. (In contrast, I trust you noted that 74 percent of eligible Venezuelans went to the polls this past week [November 2015].) Even more disturbing is the pathetic turnout of voting age citizens under the age of 30. In national elections, as a general rule, only 20 to 30 percent of voters your age go to the polls – that is the lowest turnout of any age group, and makes you the least influential voting bloc.
In contrast, we seniors (65 years and older) go to the polls more than any other age group. In national elections, between 60 and 75 percent of eligible seniors go to the polls. Because we vote, we are the most influential voting bloc. Remember that between 80 and 90 percent of elected officials run for re-election. They fear the wrath of unhappy voters. They fear us – they don’t fear you.
Let me bring this home. Last year, the average graduate of a public university walked across the stage with over $28,000 in educational debt. When I graduated from college, hardly anyone had any debt. What happened?
In the intervening years, in state after state, appropriations for higher education remained stable or declined, resulting in tuition being increased beyond inflation. In Washington, Pell Grants and other scholarship funding efforts were reduced and in their place, Congress expanded loan programs, with the result that student borrowing became the primary way students paid for their college education – and student debt has increased every year since. Students are the big losers. Because students and others under 30 rarely vote, there were few constituent pressures on policy makers, and the political process wreaked damage on its least influential voters – the young.
In contrast, look at the fortunes of my generation – those of us 65 and older. The Congress has never ventured to lower Medicare benefits or even to reduce the cost of living adjustment for Social Security. The Congress will not offend us seniors. They dare not risk the electoral wrath of that age group that votes.
For your good and for the good of the country, this has to change. And you can make change happen. Register and vote – and persuade your neighbors to do likewise. The fundamental lesson of Political Science 101 is that even if your preferred candidate loses, when you vote, you win!”