Campus groups registering students across country

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – With the presidential election less than two months away, college students across the country are mobilizing their peers to vote.

Nearly twice as many college students are expected to vote in the November presidential election than four years ago. According to the Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, about 36 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 voted in the 2000 election.

In spring 2004, 62 percent of college students in a national survey said they would “definitely” vote this year. Philip Sharp, director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics, said he thinks colleges are taking more initiative to inform students about voting this year than they did four years ago “just from talking to people.”

“I suspect the campuses in 2000 reflected and today reflect what has gone on in society,” he said, adding that America is “much more dramatic” than it was during the last election cycle. Sharp said the likely reason for the voter increase “is the in intensity of views of Americans and college students as well about the direction the country should take.”

Student leaders at many schools said they are working to inform their peers about voter registration.

Jess Smyth, vice president of Penn Dems at the University of Pennsylvania, said her group sets up a table daily in one of the most heavily trafficked areas of campus, where students can register on the spot. The organization has also started a grassroots campaign where an influential student democrat living on each residence hall floor or in each greek-letter house hands out information about the candidates and provides registration information.

“Part of our campaign has been to educate people,” she said, adding that the group has helped more than 400 students register this year. Hunter Williams, chairman of the College Republicans at the University of Florida, said his group also holds registration tabling and holds a “dorm and house coordinator program,” where students living on campus can obtain information about registration and absentee ballots. Sharp said while universities “have an obligation” to help students get information about voter registration and absentee ballots, the most effective college voter information campaigns are ones in which students talk to each other.

“The clearest, strongest thing is that students respond to other students,” he said. “It’s peer pressure”

According to a survey from Harvard’s Institute of Politics last fall, 39 percent of college students who intended to vote said they planned to use an absentee ballot, and another 10 percent said they were unsure whether they would vote in person or with an absentee ballot.

Williams and Smyth said because their universities are located in swing states, they encourage students to register to vote at school, even if their permanent address is in another state. Richard Eisenberg, president of Penn Dems, said students who register in the state where they attend college may be summoned for jury duty in that state, but can call the courthouse and explain that they have a temporary address, in that situation.

“It shouldn’t be a problem for anybody,” he said.

Many universities also have made non-partisan efforts at keeping students informed. The University of Michigan’s campaign “Voice Your Vote” has registered more than 3,000 students, said Jason Mironov, president of the university’s student body. The campaign includes a Web site and representatives visiting every student group meeting and going door-to-door in residence halls to register students.

“There’s a ton of stuff going on here,” he said. “You can’t go anywhere without being encouraged to register to vote.”

Mironov said the effort also includes paying student groups one dollar for every student they are able to register, “from the Wing-Ding Club to Animania.”

Additionally, students can receive discounts at local restaurants if they bring in their voter registration cards.

The University of Florida has a “Chomp the Vote” campaign to keep all student organizations informed about what other groups are doing to register students, said Robert Mack, lobby coordinator for the initiative. As part of the effort, students hand out T-shirts, buttons, posters and flyers.

“We’ve engaged the student body in a three-tier plan: Registration, education and mobilization,” Mack said. “We provide an outlet to facilitate communication between organizations. That way they’re not trying to compete for student registrations.”

Mack said he would like students to stop feeling “apathetic” and view voting as their “civic responsibility.”

Mack said, “The essential long-term goal is to change the mindset of students.”

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