Frustrated after trying in vain for half an hour to get the television to work, Peter Byger ran a hand through his hair and turned the box off. Looking around the circle of 16 empty chairs, he told the three women gathered in Windsor Lounge to go home.
There would no presidential debate watch party.
The event, planned for Oct. 8, was advertised over a Stephens College student e-mail list that reaches about 700 people. It was touted as a bipartisan event to give students with opposing political viewpoints the opportunity to interact, engage and learn from one another.
Byger’s great expectations, however, did not pan out.
Absence of political interest
Perhaps the single-digit attendance is indicative of the political climate at Stephens College, a place where dance and play rehearsals far outweigh political activism.
“You won’t find the students running around putting political stickers on things in support of either candidate,” said Alan Havig, a Stephens history professor. “We used to have more of that when we had political science and philosophy majors because the interest was there.”
Until Byger, a resident actor and instructor, decided to put together the Stephens Suffrajetts for Kerry — a tribute to the female suffragettes who fought to give women the right to vote at the turn of the 20th century — the college had no active student political organizations.
In an attempt to fill that void, Byger created the Suffrajetts “to get Democratic-friendly students to vote and to spread John Kerry’s message.” None of the organization’s 25 members attended the watch party.
“I gave up my Friday night to be here because I believe that interaction is important, and you know what’s telling? No one showed up,” Byger said during the second presidential debate. “But hey, it’s Friday night, and it takes a lot of motivation to show up.”
Byger, who has been involved with the precinct of the local Democratic Party that includes Stephens College, said he was optimistic more people would show up after the Suffrajetts registered more than 50 people to vote in less than two weeks.
Although the group was successful in registering voters on and off campus, Byger said he thinks the lackluster debate attendance indicates where the college is right now.
“When I first came here in the 1970s and there were 2,500 students enrolled, you couldn’t miss when you planned activities because you were almost guaranteed to get someone to attend,” he said. “Now that it’s much smaller, it's harder.”
Busyness forms barrier to politics
Byger acknowledged that at a liberal-arts college, political debates must defer to late-night rehearsals. Elizabeth Schafer, a Suffrajetts member and dance major, agreed that might have been the problem.
“With rehearsals going so late, it was difficult to watch, but everybody I talked to did,” she said. “I know a lot of girls watched in their rooms or in the lounges (of the residence halls). We just didn’t feel like going somewhere to watch the debate when we could do it in our rooms.”
Havig said he thinks students don’t have enough time to attend political events.
“I think they’re interested, but they’re just too busy,” Havig said. “They’re exhausted; they have classes, tests, papers and rehearsals that run late every night. They’re interested, but things like politics sometimes have to take a back seat.”
That attitude worries Byger. “I’m frightened about what this apathy means,” he said. “If I can’t get people to walk a few feet to watch a debate, what does that mean for getting them to the polls? They don’t care now, but they’ll care in a few years when they’re paying off the deficit.”
Freshman Alicia Prato is not worried about getting students to the polls. As a member of the local Democratic Party, Prato said she has been approached by people with questions about Election Day.
“Stephens students are busy, but I think they care about who’s going to be running the country next year,” she said. “Every day someone has come up to me asking how they can vote and where they should go.”
Hope lives on
Although the watch party did not turn out the way he wanted, Byger isn’t giving up.
He arranged to have a van shuttle students to polling places Nov. 2, and he’s making plans for political parties and rallies with the local Democratic headquarters.
“I’m not going to count the girls out yet — I know they’ll come around,” Byger said. “I’m still motivated, and as long as I am, I’ll keep trying.”