With issues such as student debt and the future of health care at the forefront, November’s presidential election has the potential to impact young voters in the aged 18 to 29 demographic.
In the 2008 presidential election, the “young vote,’’ made up 18 percent of total voter turnout, according to a survey by the Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International for the National Election Pool.
The 53 percent turnout rate among these young voters was also the largest since 1972, according to the survey.
But students and faculty members are working to increase the amount of young voters through a new initiative — PSU Votes.
PSU Votes is a group that has been actively engaged in an effort to get the student vote out through voter registration and education since its inception this year.
For Laura Brown, senior undergraduate studies adviser and member of the PSU Votes initiative, said the potential turnout of just over half the eligible voting population in this demographic feels like a shortfall.
Similarly minded student-run organizations have sprung up in the past. In 2008, a Penn State group called “Represent” tasked themselves with getting the student vote out, Brown said.
However, these organizations disbanded after the presidential elections were over, she said, and PSU Votes has a more ambitious agenda.
Officially, PSU Votes is described as “a nonpartisan, town-grown initiative supported by Penn State students, faculty, and staff, with the goal of educating students about important civic issues, registering to vote, and casting votes,” Brown wrote in an email.
Yet the goal of PSU Votes goes beyond this presidential election. Brown said the group would like to see a four-year curriculum implemented for all Penn State students, which would educate them about the electoral process, and prepare them for elections every year.
The initiative began as a response to the 1998 reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act, which requires all federally funded universities, by law, to make a “good faith effort,” to provide voter registration forms to all enrolled students.
Unfortunately, Brown said that this generally boils down to a pile of registration forms available somewhere on campus a certain number of days before the election.
“That is a very low bar, and we can, and should, do a whole lot more,” Brown said.
This institutional indifference towards voter education certainly is not a problem that begins and ends at Penn State. Brown said she believes it is something that extends throughout the country.
“I think there is a lot of work to be done in the nation as a whole,” Brown said. “The media certainly does a poor job educating voters as to what candidates truly have to offer and so it is a challenge for students to inform themselves about the election. PSU Votes is about helping students meet these challenges.”
In an effort to do so, PSU Votes has scheduled four separate events aimed at educating students about the importance of voting.
The series, titled “What’s At Stake?,” will commence with a forum called “Why Vote?” at 8 p.m. Wednesday in the HUB-Robeson Center’s Heritage Hall.
The event will include speakers Jay Paterno, Lady Lion’s Head Coach Coquese Washington and Communication Arts and Sciences Professor John Gastil.
The remaining three events will be held leading up to the election, and will be focused on issues of relevance to the student population, such as employment and student aid, foreign policy, and the environment, Brown said.
Each of the events will be free and open to the public, and will be recorded by WPSU, she said.
In addition to these events, the PSU Votes initiative is currently planning a number of smaller events, and is finalizing a website where students can go to gain more information about this year’s election.
Students will also be able to view a number of different interactive links, including a straw-poll and a personality quiz, which matches student’s views with the views of a certain candidates, Brown said.
Christie Hans (sophomore–advertising and art history) is one of the students currently involved with PSU Votes, and said she is in charge of the initiative’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
Hans said she feels that this type of media is an effective way to reach out to students, as many spend a significant amount of time on the Internet.
“I think getting involved in social media involving politics is really easy,” Hans said. “These websites are great sources of information to young voters, so they shouldn’t be played down.”
Hans said she is also helping to plan a series of “Whiteboard Events,” which will feature whiteboards outside of the HUB and the library with the phrase “I want to vote because…” written on each of them.
Students will be able to write down why they think they should vote and will have an opportunity to pick up voter registration forms at each of the events.
“We think that this would be a great time for students to come out and talk about what is important to them in the election, and to register if they haven’t yet,” Hans said.
Andriana Acosta (senior–political science and public relations) said she got involved with PSU Votes because of her interest in politics and her feeling that the student vote would be significant in terms of this election.
For this reason, Acosta said she believes students should take every opportunity to learn more about both presidential candidates.
“It is important to keep up with both sides [in the election], and to know the ideas each platform is representing,” Acosta said. “Even if you strongly support one candidate over another, you should know what the other one stands for too.”
Brown said she also feels it is of the utmost importance for students to come out in numbers and make an informed vote come November. She feels that the world needs to know that these young men and women, who represent the future of our country, are watching.
“State College is largely casting a vote for the 18-24 population,” Brown said, “so if students do not vote, they are literally sending the message to our elected officials that they do not care, and these officials will respond by not paying attention to them down the road.”
Brown said she hopes this is the last time Penn State — and universities across the country — will approach the presidential election by coming to the sudden realization that the student body is woefully under-informed about how and why they should be voting.
She said she wishes to see the adoption of this initiative into a full-fledged university-run program to spawn a continued interest in not just the presidential elections, but in the local and state elections.
“We are really just start-ups right now,” Brown said, “but this initiative could potentially provide a central model for the university to develop an institutionalized process of young voter education and engagement in our community.”
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