Penn State College Democrats President Drew McGehrin said knocking on doors for three hours on a Saturday afternoon is a small price to pay for re-electing Barack Obama to another four years in the White House.
Similarly, Penn State College Republicans Chairman Jordan Harris views an hour waiting in line to cast a ballot as an hour well spent. He said he plans to vote before he leaves his house in Bellefonte for his 8 a.m. class.
“There’s no excuse for not voting,” Harris (senior-history and economics) said. “Even if the line is an hour long, it’s an hour. I’m sure people wait much longer to see Go Go Gadjet.”
A few dozen highly driven Penn State students from across the political spectrum have worked almost non-stop this semester to rally their peers to adopt a similar mindset. They encourage fellow college students to use their votes to make their voices heard on Election Day, in spite of historically low turnout among their demographic.
Students’ likelihood of voting mostly boils down to motivation and interest, said Michael Berkman, Penn State professor of political science.
“If they want to vote, they’ll find a way to do it, so the two are balanced against one another,” Berkman said.
He said people with the most interest in a campaign or a candidate and the least hurdles to voting are most likely to turn out. Turnout also depends on how well parties, candidates and non-affiliated groups do at mobilizing people, he said.
Berkman said for college students, one of the biggest issues is getting registered. Students are more mobile than adults, so it’s harder for them to do what they need to do to get registered, he said. Registration deadlines often come before they’re really focused on the campaign, Berkman said.
He said some students might have a difficult time seeing how the candidates and campaigns affect them. They may be public service-oriented, but they’re not interested in politics, Berkman said.
A few students are highly politically motivated, however. In the last weeks leading up to the election, Penn State Students for Barack Obama, Penn State College Democrats and Penn State College Republicans have been going door-to-door to remind students where and when to vote. Those efforts came after a fierce push to register students to vote.
Joyce McKinley, director of the Centre County Office of Elections and Voter Registration, said there were more than 10,300 new voter registrations between the beginning of September and the voter registration deadline on Oct. 9. The county went from 102,626 registered voters at the start of September to 112,940 voters in October, McKinley said.
Penn State SFBO and Penn State College Democrats partnered throughout the election cycle to register students and make sure they show up to vote today. Penn State SFBO President Taylor Garland said they’ve been knocking on doors and giving students slips of paper with their polling locations.
Garland (senior-public relations and political science) said it’s a common misconception that all students vote in the HUB-Robeson Center. Students who live off-campus don’t vote at the HUB, she said.
McGehrin (senior-history and religious studies) said lack of interest in the election and lack of understanding of the candidates and issues are causes of low voter turnout among college students.
“Throughout this entire semester, our main goal was to educate these college students and make them realize how much of an impact they can have on this election,” McGehrin said.
Penn State efforts
Luke Keele, associate professor of political science at Penn State, said Pennsylvania is one of a few states with fairly strict voting laws. Voting laws vary from state to state, so students may not know if they can vote where they go to college or if they have to vote in their home state, Keele said.
In Pennsylvania, students can vote where they attend college — and campus political groups have been working tirelessly to register students, educate them and get them to turn out at the polls. The non-partisan initiative PSU Votes provided voter registration forms to political groups, who led the charge to register students, said Laura Brown, senior undergraduate studies advisor and member of PSU Votes.
Brown said PSU Votes is the latest evolution of a string of efforts that seeks to educate students and get out the vote.
“Often, the initiatives have been grassroots, and there’s not been a lot of consistency,” Brown said. “Hopefully, PSU Votes will become institutionalized, so that there will be ongoing voter education.”
The PSU Votes website, votes.psu.edu, has access to non-partisan voter information, Brown said. She said PSU Votes also conducted a straw poll until midnight Monday night to gather information about student voters and get students to think about how they will vote in the actual election. Results will be announced Tuesday, Brown said.
Brown said PSU Votes volunteers will track wait time at the HUB-Robeson Center polls on Election Day. She said she hopes that will give the university guidance for policies that will encourage students to vote.
PSU Votes also hosted a series of forums on issues such as the economy, education and the environment, said PSU Votes communications leader Adriana Acosta. Acosta (senior-public relations and political science) said the forums gave students the opportunity to learn about topics they might not know much about.
Acosta said a lot of college students decide not to be a part of politics because they don’t know much about it. She said she’s met a lot of students who don’t like any of the candidates running for office and who don’t think their vote is worth it. She said she reminds them that though they’re college students now, they are going to graduate, have to pay taxes and deal with policies that affect them.
Acosta said she hopes PSU Votes has been able to engage more students to talk about political issues.
“Politics is a sensitive topic, but it’s important that we have educated conversations about it,” Acosta said. “I hope we have been able to educate students as much as possible about the government and the upcoming election. The main goal is to get students to go out and vote.”
Acosta said members of the initiative hope to become a commission for voting to get more support from the administration, so that there’s more of a push to get Penn State students to vote. She said members of PSU Votes want to implement university-wide voter registration by giving students voter registration forms when they come for First-Year Testing, Counseling and Advising Program or move-in weekend.
Other schools’ initiatives
Students at other schools have been working hard to get voters to the polls, too.
NU Votes was a pilot voter registration program at Northwestern University, UVote Project program coordinator Becca Portman said. The program was a success last year, so organizers decided to expand it to other schools as the UVote Project, she said.
The UVote Project helps eight universities integrate voter registration into campus life with the hope that it will become institutionalized, Portman, a senior majoring in social policy at Northwestern, said.
She said through the Wildcat Welcome initiative at Northwestern, a staff works with the student ID office to make sure every incoming freshman gets a voter registration form.
Fighting to keep momentum going in non-election years is a common theme among non-partisan voter groups across colleges. Hillary Doyle, OSU Votes director for media relations, said the Ohio State initiative has been around for all of the midterms and presidential elections, but it hasn’t existed consistently.
After this year, however, it will remain a presence on the Ohio State campus as a committee of the Pay It Forward project, she said. The project has a mission of getting the university’s students involved in service and civic engagement, Doyle, a senior majoring in English and linguistics, said.
OSU Votes’ main mission was getting students registered before Ohio’s deadline, which was also Oct. 9, Doyle said. Now, the group is a resource for students who have questions about the election. Its members are making sure students know how to find their polling place and have a proof of residency, which can be an obstacle for students who aren’t from the county where they’re voting, Doyle said.
Doyle said the group makes sure students know the university registrar can send a document that counts – although some students didn’t update their address for that to work.
OSU Votes co-director Bryan Swint said he believes the group’s value is in its’ non-partisan nature. OSU Votes shows students that voting is a unique opportunity.
“Students are very civically engaged. It’s just that sometimes they’re overrun by political ads,” Swint, a senior majoring in operation management, said. “We offer them an opportunity to voice their opinion without having it drowned out.”