Saint Olaf is one of the most highly politically involved colleges of its size in the nation. An estimated 60% of all students are politically aware and involved to some degree. Saint Olaf boasts the largest chapter of College Democrats in the nation and the largest chapter of College Republicans in the state for small, private colleges. The Political Awareness Committee sponsors weekly speakers on issues from all over the political spectrum. In addition, students are highly involved in social issues such as the environment, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender, welfare, social security, and others, and there are numerous clubs on campus to support students views.
The Political Awareness Committee works to keep students informed and channels open for forums on different issues. However, said Lauren Topel 03, president of PAC, "people need to find out for themselves," where they stand. Once they determine what views they hold, St. Olaf has a number of outlets for expressing and acting on those views, as well as drawing together others who feel the same way.
"Channels exist for expressing even minority opinions," said Matt Pelikan 03, a member of the College Democrats.
A majority of St. Olafs students and faculty hold liberal views. This can sometimes be a problem for members of other parties.
"I think a lot of people dont realize that not everyone is liberal," said College Republican chairperson Rachel Belter 03. "People are afraid to admit theyre Republican because of stereotypes. People think that if theyre Republicans theyre automatically pro-war or anti-environment. Theres a definite feeling of intimidation."
Many social clubs also have a liberal slant.
"We have a lot of social organizations that arent specifically political but tend to be liberal," said Christina Hilleary 06.
This makes it difficult to discuss or represent both sides of all issues and have fair debate. The College Republicans are working to reduce stereotypes and advertise the significant Republican presence on campus by informing people about Republican positions on issues and encouraging members to wear buttons advertising their political affiliation.
Topel also noted that overwhelming student opinion on an issue can make it difficult to provide an opposing viewpoint. She, along with Pelikan, believes that there needs to be more discussion on complex issues where time and discussion are needed to properly define opposing viewpoints. One such neglected issue, she feels, is the war on Iraq and Middle East issues in general. PAC plans to set up a Middle-East forum this year, focusing especially on United States foreign policy and the proposed war with Iraq.
While students are interested in social issues and things that affect them, Pelikan said that students need to become more generally politically aware. Less than half of St. Olaf students voted in last years election. The College Democrats put a high priority on "getting out the vote," and educating voters about issues.
"During elections we dont just try to get Democrats to vote, we try to everyone to vote," said Pelikan.
This year he hopes for a 70% turnout at the polls, aided in part by moving the voting place onto the campus itself.
Both the College Republicans and the College Democrats work hard to recruit new members and educate students about their views on important issues. Both groups run membership drives and distribute literature and buttons, as well as making their presence known at the Co-Curricular fair. Along with the PAC, both groups bring speakers to campus. Turnout for speakers brought to campus by either of the major parties is generally large and nonpartisan.
"Many people consider us to be a politically strong and diverse campus," said Topel.
Saint Olafs political diversity was also shown by a straw poll taken in the last presidential election by the College Republicans, which indicated that 50% voted Democratic, 30% Republican, and 20% Green.
Most students are satisfied with the degree of political options available to them on campus.
"I think theres a nice mix of political views," said Lauren Anderson 06.
"I feel like theres a place for everyone," said Beth Bevis 04. Theres probably a group on campus to fill anybodys needs."