Boulder students are showing passion, getting involved in 2016 election

Anna Sparlin, an environmental design student, didn’t get involved with politics until after starting school at the University of Colorado at Boulder three years ago. 

“Before college, my biggest political action was voting in the 2012 elections,” Sparlin said, “ and I only knew one person I was voting for.”

Since then, Sparlin has become an activist, working as the director of communications for CU Student Voices Count. 

“I got involved in politics because I was very focused on this election,” Sparlin, a Bernie Sanders supporter, said. 

The Sanders campaign appealed to the younger crowd. Among liberal voters ages 20-36, Sanders had a 78 percent approval rating during the primaries, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 51 percent and Donald Trump’s nine.

His campaign, based on universal health care, tuition-free college and saving the environment, painted a clear picture of how complex and overwhelming the political process is to many young voters.

“It was starting to hit me just how difficult it is to get into politics,” Sparlin said. “If you don’t know the process, you kind of feel like a fish out of water.” 

Instead of choosing a path of indifference, Sparlin found her place with CU Student Voices Count.

“It started out as a protest,” she said. 

When CNBC hosted the GOP debate last October, a group of students came together to voice their concern about the lack of tickets allocated for student attendees. When their concerns were not addressed, they hosted their own event. Students heard from Colorado Congressman Jared Polis, Green party presidential candidate Jill Stein and various other political figures about the political process.

From there, the club turned into a non-partisan student organization. It now helps to coordinate CU Student Government debates, provides students with information about local and national elections and encourages them to become active in the political community.

But Sparlin’s heightened political attitude isn’t the norm among her generation.

Sparlin is a millennial. Her generation now takes up the same amount of the American electorate as the baby boomers, but has the lowest turnout rate within the voting population. Fifty-four percent of them were absent in the 2012 election. Even more were silent during the 2014 midterms. 

A lack of involvement from younger crowds seems to spur from a lack of efficacy among the population.

“I think a lot of candidates have these big ideas,” Melany Sibanda, who aligned with Bernie Sanders during the primaries, said, “but with the kind of Congress we have it’s not always going to be attainable.”

Young voters like Sibanda who have more innovative ideas about the political system are now struggling to find a candidate who represents their values in the 2016 presidential election cycle. 

Indirect answers, she said, fill presidential debates. Like many other young voters, she isn’t sold on either Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton or her Republican counterpart Donald Trump. 

“Trump and Clinton both have such negatives when it comes to trust,” associate professor of political science Michaele Ferguson said. “One way to increase trust [is saying]: ‘If you don’t trust the system, well, then let’s listen to you. Let’s figure out what your issues are and let’s get you involved and bring people along with you.’”

When young people talk about politics, they bring up every corner of social justice. From the recent Black Lives Matter movement to the push for better availability of higher education and higher wages, youth are showing up largely to focus on social issues.

Democrats, Ferguson said, are the party that appeals best to young voters for exactly that reason. 

In fall 2010, CU Boulder’s Office of Data Analytics found that 48 percent of students identified as politically liberal. In contrast, only 16 percent identified as conservative. Fifteen percent also claimed to be politically moderate while only 17 percent declined an affiliation.

Scout Ennis, who now works as a campaign manager for Republican county commissioner candidate Paul Danish, was one of the few Republican students at CU Boulder until graduating in the spring of 2016.

Ennis lived her whole life with two Democratic parents and a stigma against George W. Bush before going to Boulder. She even voted for Barack Obama in the 2012 election. But when her sophomore year came, Ennis realized she was actually a Republican.

Entering college with a more liberal mindset, Ennis made friends with a Democrat.

“She was a liberal feminist,” Ennis said. “I didn’t really question that.”

But when Ennis sought help from her friend while struggling in an abusive relationship, she didn’t find assistance.

“She told me to shut up because I had white privilege. She said I had no authority or place to complain about such a thing,” Ennis said.

It was in that moment Ennis decided to research her own political views.

She found that she agreed with anti-feminism, Rand Paul supporters and basic Republican principles.

But it wasn’t the personal transformation that took a toll on Ennis, it was the backlash from the community around her. 

“In certain departments,” Ennis said, “it was very hard for them to understand why I was a conservative. Some were even very taken aback by it. When other people knew that I was a Republican, they just weren’t as friendly as they were before.”

Ennis said she noticed a change in the relationship she had with her professors. Some would call her sexist, others would accuse her of being a conspiracy theorist. One even refused to work with her. 

Despite all the negativity, though, Ennis said CU helped her thrive politically. 

“I think CU is doing a lot of things to better [the environment],” Ennis said. 

Last year, CU brought in a conservative professor, Brian Domitrovic, to give conservative students someone to connect with. Specialties aside, there are more than 15 clubs at CU Boulder with political focuses. Two are considered to lean Republican, three lean Democrat and the rest are either specialized for interest groups or meant to bridge the gap between liberal and conservative thinking.

“[It] really gives conservatives on campus a home, a place to have our ideas feel accepted and [we can] go forward and reach out to liberals and exchange those ideas,” Ennis said. “I think CU’s actually doing a very good job with that – better than most universities.”

Even inside the classrooms across Boulder’s campus, students can find insight about political engagement. 

“A number of classes give students direct experience with what it means to go up to strangers and try to persuade them to take a pamphlet or to do something related to political change,” Ferguson said. “What I’ve seen over the years is that a number of students who develop much more of an appreciation for how difficult the work of politics is.”

Students who are able to go out and participate in a form of political activism, Ferguson claims, have a greater appreciation of how a small act can have a big impact. 

“It leads to students doing more protesting and organizing outside of the official political system, as well as students seeing a connection between activist work and door knocking… or trying to sign up people to register to vote,” Ferguson said.

It’s activist work like getting out the vote that puts all politically minded students, like Sparlin and Ennis, on the same page.

“Our generation, students here at Boulder, are very politically minded,” Sparlin said. “They’ve got opinions, they’re good about educating themselves and knowing why they want to vote for the things they vote for. But when it comes to actual engagement, I would like to see a lot more engagement among students. If we find a way to make politics a bit more easy for people to step into for people who are first time voters, their participation will sky-rocket.”

Published: July 2016.