Interest Groups Combat Voter Apathy Among College Students

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Give America's college students a multiple choice test to find out why they don't vote, and chances are they'd choose, "all of the above."

Let's look at some of the choices:

— Too busy;

— Registration is too complicated;

— Many have to vote absentee;

— Candidates do not address issues of interest;

— Political bickering is a turn-off;

— Political campaigns are negative;

— Election Day is not a holiday; or,

— You don't get free stuff.

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They might not vote because Election Day isn’t a holiday or they don’t get free stuff. Above all, many students view voting as an outdated ritual, not a civic duty.

“I’m just not motivated. When you feel like your vote doesn’t count and the politicians don’t make you care about the issues, voting just doesn’t seem that important,” said Jennifer Dunn, a senior at Southern Methodist University.

Whatever the reason — or excuse — the political parties and other interest groups are trying to combat the apathy that makes young people the smallest voting demographic by age group.

“The core issue of why college students don’t vote is that they don’t see voting a civic duty and are not connected to the democratic process,” said John Wilson, a staff member of New Millennium Young Voters Project, founded by the National Association of State Legislatures in 1994 "to help reconnect young Americans with the democratic process."

“We are trying to combat that by providing voter awareness information, creating state programs and promoting civic education [in] schools that have been failing in basic government education,” Wilson said.

Despite the seeming apathy among young voters, skeptics who thought the elusive youth vote was unattainable may see a glimmer of hope. According to the U.S. Census, 47 percent of 18 to 24 year olds voted in the 2004 presidential election. Although only barely half of eligible voters in that age group went to the polls, it was the largest voter turnout for youth voters since 1972 and an 11 point surge over 2000.

A lot of youth disinterest could be linked to a lack of knowledge about how government works.

In a Harris Interactive survey sponsored by the American Bar Association in July 2005, only 55 percent of 1,002 adult Americans could correctly identify the three branches of government. More than one in five survey respondents (22 percent) thought the correct answers were Republican, Democrat and independent.

How much children learn about voting at home and at school is the biggest factor affecting whether young people vote after they turn 18, according to the National Information Consortium. A study produced by NIC concluded that 46 percent of young people never talked about politics, government or current events with their parents while they lived at home.

“The goal should be helping create an involved citizen,” said Carl Fillichipo, vice president of Campaign for Young Voters. “It should not be about getting a person to vote so numbers somewhere go up.”

Diane Millard, whose son is a senior at University of Michigan, said she made a concerted effort to talk about politics and government around the dinner table.

“I know he may not have liked it, but I thought it was necessary to expound on what he was learning in school about American history and government,” she said.

Besides promoting discussions on civic participation before children are of age to vote, many groups are targeting college students at ground zero — college campuses. Groups like Mobilizing America’s Youth and Campus Compact have started chapters at colleges around the nation.

Raw Data: State-By-State Voter Registration Requirements

Bunker Blake, a senior at University of Miami in Ohio, said he would not have registered if someone didn’t basically do it for him.

“A person from Rock the Vote came up to me and asked if I was registered,” Blake said. “I filled out a card and he did the paperwork and gave me my card. I definitely would have forgotten if that guy didn’t do it for me.”

All that mobilizing doesn’t come cheap. In 2004, six nonpartisan groups spent over $40 million to get out the youth vote.

The big money effort may have been the reason more students went to the polls, but some critics say generating interest in the campaigns is a better solution to the problem.

Fillichipo said he thinks two factors could get more young people to vote — the Internet and political candidates addressing student-related issues.

“Candidates and political parties are finally starting to get it,” he said. “College students can be reached if you engage them, and the Internet is a great way to reach technology-minded college students.”

Most candidates have their own Web sites, and many are writing Web logs. Candidates can address issues in a more conversational way and tailor there writing to a younger generation that way. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., for instance, a potential presidential candidate in 2008, announced this summer that she is starting her own blog.

Some candidates don’t have the big bucks or the interest groups or the name recognition to draw a lot of publicity to their online efforts, but that’s not stopping them from reaching out to young voters. The new video Web site, YouTube, is a place where candidates can post their own political messages for free to audiences of mostly young people.

But even aggressive hands-on approaches and creative uses of technology may not be enough to get voters better informed.

When University of Miami at Ohio student Blake was approached by the Rock the Vote representative, he filled out the forms mainly to humor the guy, he said. Asked who he voted for, Blake had a hard time recalling.

“Bush I think, no Kerry,” said Blake. “I don’t really remember.”

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