“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” Virgil’s Aeneid warns. To that I add: Beware of college administrators bearing plans to “enhance American democracy.” Too often, what appears to be a simple wooden horse is really a ploy to get more progressive foot soldiers inside the walls.
Last fall, the faux-nonpartisan operation Voter Friendly Campus (VFC) designated 262 American colleges as “voter-friendly.” To achieve this classification, institutions had to write a “democratic engagement action plan” and jump through various other social-bureaucratic hoops.
Stressed throughout the process were the so-called Four Pillars of Democratic Engagement: voter registration, education, and turnout, as well as the development of students as voter “advocates.” Colleges with successful applications got a chance to brag, and many were featured in VFC’s lovingly produced, full-color report.
Campus vote-whipping would be obnoxious even if those doing it were ideologically disinterested. They aren’t.To read that publication now is to encounter all the usual clichés from the Democratic fearmongering handbook. “Attacks on democracy” were “hallmarks” of the last election season. “More than a dozen states” have made it “more difficult for college students to vote.” “Bad actors” abound. Yes, the report sheepishly acknowledges, young people showed up “in droves” to cast ballots in 2022. But the nation is, as ever, one low-turnout election cycle away from fascism.
What colleges are standing in the way of this nightmare? At Community College of Philadelphia, administrators registered “more than 100 new voters,” in part by participating in a press conference with the (Democratic) city commissioner. Florida A&M University bribed students with an election-day pizza party on the quad. North Carolina’s own UNC Pembroke, singled out for special praise in the report, included voter-registration forms in every move-in packet, sent volunteers to speak in classes, and placed get-out-the-vote tables at practically every event on campus.
For reasons discussed below, these efforts would be obnoxious even if those making them were ideologically disinterested. They aren’t. An initiative of the (liberal) Campus Vote Project and the (stone-cold crazy) National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA), VFC is exactly what it appears to be to even the moderately engaged observer: a progressive project created by and for the Left.
But don’t just take my word for it. A glance at the Campus Vote Project’s staff page reveals enough gendery-justicey jiggery-pokery to send one reaching for the Republican National Committee’s “DONATE” button. NASPA, meanwhile, is full-on land-acknowledging, “whiteness”-decrying insane. Between the “Trans & Queer Black, Indigenous, People of Color (TQBIPOC) Breakfast” and the “Undocumented Immigrants and Allies Knowledge Community Closed Board Meeting,” it’s a wonder that attendees at the group’s most recent conference found time to plot their next long march through the higher-ed institutions.
Is VFC to blame for its parent organizations’ radicalism? Yes, actually. But even if all involved were merely moderate Democrats, it would still be wrong to place them in charge of gearing up the undergraduate electorate. There is a reason why registration drives are the province of our political parties. They can’t be done without improving the chances of one candidate or another. Just as my voter-engagement efforts in, say, rural Tennessee would redound to Trump’s benefit, so the work of campus vote-whippers helps Biden. That’s fine as far as it goes: May the best organization win. The problem comes when Republican tax dollars go toward financing what is plainly a Democratic operation.
The money trail for “voter-friendly campuses” leads back to your wallet.Make no mistake: The money trail for this stuff leads back to your wallet. To pay for engagement projects like Voter Friendly Campus, NASPA sells both individual and institutional memberships, at a cost ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars. On the institutional side, the organization has already snared every school in the UNC System, as well as numerous N.C. private and community colleges. As for individuals, while it is beyond the scope of this article to scan every NASPA member’s bank statement, I have never known a student-services apparatchik to write a check for his or her own professional dues. There is, inevitably, a publicly- or tuition-funded budget for that.
Moreover, time is money, even in the administrative suite. When UNC Pembroke achieved its fourth sequential “voter-friendly” designation last fall, it did so through the explicit efforts of the Office of Community & Civic Engagement. To put the matter bluntly, those salaries are paid for by you. If UNCP employees have time in their workday to rock the vote, you may have hired too many of them.
Let me lay my biases on the table. As a patrician Republican of the old school, I’d prefer that voting were safe, legal, and rare. Yet even if one takes a kinder view than mine of the average ballot-caster, it is no stretch to recognize that American college students give new meaning to the phrase “low-information.” Having learned approximately nothing since the 1960s, our undergrads are being driven to the polls in a crude exercise in political odds-playing. The adults on campus know that most of their charges will pull the lever marked “D.” The veneer of nonpartisanship given to the project is not only false but insulting. Surely the educrats know that we know better.
It is a fallacy that voting is a moral good. Don’t misunderstand me: The right to vote is sacrosanct. Implicit in much get-them-to-the-polls hooey, however, is the notion that casting a ballot somehow improves one’s soul. Even if that were true, I fail to see why college administrators should care. As the education scholar Philip Lee has noted, American courts killed in loco parentis six decades ago. University employees are their students’ “moms” and “dads” no longer and ought to teach, not disciple. In my own professorial days, I cared very much what my students learned. How they put it to use was their business.
In both practice and theory, voter-friendly campuses are a scam. The practical point is to elect liberals, but even the philosophy crumbles at a touch. Let our students sit in class, eat in the cafeteria, and walk the quad without being accosted. If they want to vote, great. But don’t make us pay for it.
Graham Hillard is editor at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.