Panelists Reflect Upon the Impact of Voting Rights on Social Change

The Department of Sociology and Anthropology (SOAN) hosted a panel called “Lets Talk About … Elections and Civil Rights” on Thursday, November 13, to give students and faculty the chance to discuss the influence of voting rights on social change in America.

Thursday’s panel was the third event in a series focusing on civil rights and social change this semester. The panel was moderated by Associate Professor of Sociology and Chair of  the SOAN department Chris Henke and featured Professor of Sociology and Africana and Latin American Studies Jonathan Hyslop, Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology Lavinia Nicolae and Professor of Sociology Rhonda Levine on the panel.

Henke stated that the idea behind the event was to bring students together to hear knowledgeable faculty discuss the topic.

“I really wanted to give our faculty a chance to speak informally,” Henke said.

About 30 people showed up at Donovan’s Pub for the event, some of whom were encouraged to go with their SOAN classes. First-year Ben Ringel, who attended with his first-year seminar (FSEM), said he was very interested in what happened in the midterm elections earlier this month.

“I’m kind of hoping that it’s an informed and open discussion about what’s been going on in America the past few weeks and looking forward to 2016,” Ringel said before the event.

Henke’s questions to the panel members focused mainly on the extent to which voting rights allow Americans to effect social change.

“This panel was organized because obviously there’s a theme this year at Colgate of civil rights,” Henke said.

In addition to alluding to this fall’s “Can You Hear Us Now” demonstration on campus, Henke also referred to national events like the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mississippi in August.

Levine, who specializes in political sociology, has mixed opinions on whether the electoral process makes a difference in enacting social change.

“My kneejerk reaction was to say forget voting, get out on the streets,” Levine said. “On the other hand, it is absolutely necessary that we all get out and vote. What happens outside of the electoral process really pushes our ability to enact change, but if we don’t get out and vote we won’t be able to ensure change.”

Hyslop brought a unique perspective to the panel, drawing on his experience voting in the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994.

“The experience was kind of a national catharsis,” Hyslop said.

Still, like Levine, Hyslop was uncertain of the power of voting in enacting social change.

“I come down somewhere in between,” Hyslop said. “I do think that elections as an institution and representative government are important to society. Having said that, looking closely at the recent American elections, what’s appalling is the very low turnout from people.”

Hyslop suggested the most effective process to enact social change is a combination of the electoral process and activism.

“You actually need to be a citizen,” Hyslop said. “You need to get out there and participate.”

Nicolae, who studies LGBTQ politics and activism in New Mexico, echoed Hyslop’s response.

“It’s not just the singular process of going up to vote,” Nicolae said. “We must inform ourselves of our rights and what we want from our representatives.”

The panel also discussed the growing demand for public financing in American elections, noting how campaign finance reform would allow more people to run for office and individuals to have as much influence as corporations.

Junior JT Anderson participated in the discussion following the panel, posing a question about campaign finance reform.

“I was glad they focused on campaign financing because I wanted them to elaborate on why that was such an important issue,” Anderson said. 

Henke said he was pleased with the turnout and level of student participation. SOAN will host a similar series of events focused on social media and civil rights next semester.