Group aims to increase student-voter turnout

Dylan Thomas

Concerned that politicians aren’t listening to young people, six University students formed Votes for Students, a group aimed at making it easier for students to vote.

“We think that college students are smart and they understand what they need to succeed,” said political science and history junior Zachery Coelius, the executive director of VFS. “They just don’t know how to do it politically.”

“We’re going to provide them with that information so they can become politically active,” said Coelius, who said politicians would be more likely to pay attention to student concerns if their voting power is strengthened.

To help students get involved in the political process, VFS will e-mail out voter registration forms and absentee ballots to college students.

The group has already received a commitment for a $60,000 donation for the software the project will require. Members are in negotiations with another donor that would cover $20,000 in office costs and with a University department to provide computer support.

John Sullivan, a University political science professor, and Mark Snyder, a University psychology professor, will advise VFS and evaluate its initial effort’s success.

In the last mid-term election, only 24 percent of college-age students voted, said Susan Coelius-Keplinger, deputy director of VFS. She said although low student turnout at the polls is often blamed on voter apathy, the real reasons have to do with the voting process itself.

“It’s not a problem of apathy. It’s not a problem of students not caring,” Zachery Coelius said. “It’s a problem of them being stopped by the structural hurdles that prevent voting.”

Coelius said those hurdles include the basic things people must do to vote, such as register to vote, get absentee ballots if they are away from their home districts, locate polling places or find information about candidates.

He said that because many students arrive at college having just reached voting age, they are inexperienced with the voting process and are participating in one of their first elections.

He said for college students, voting basics often get pushed aside by the basics of college life, such as “partying, studying and doing your laundry.”

When VFS members started looking at ways to make it easy for students to register to vote, they discovered that current voting laws worked to their advantage.

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 created a single voter registration form to be used by 46 states. VFS members realized they could e-mail one voter registration form to students across the country.

The next step was finding the e-mail addresses of tens of thousands of students. Again, current voter laws worked to their advantage. The Higher Education Act of 1998 requires college registrars to provide students with voter registration forms.

However, they found that few registrars were actually providing the forms, Coelius said.

“We can work with college registrars,” he said. “We help them fulfill their legal requirements at the same time that we provide (students) with information that we really want to fight to provide them.”

The VFS e-mails will contain a link to an organization called Project Vote Smart. The group compiles information on candidates for local and national public offices. According to the PVS Web site, it provides nonpartisan information about candidate “backgrounds, issue positions, voting records, campaign finances and performance evaluations made by over 100 liberal to conservative special interest groups.”

To test the program’s success, Donald Green, a Yale University political science professor, will check voter records against the list of students who receive e-mails from VFS. Voter turnout among students who received the e-mails will then be compared to the turnout for students who did not.

Coelius-Keplinger said the results will allow VFS to compare its project with other youth voting efforts, such as MTV’s Rock the Vote campaign.

“Rock the Vote has been around since 1996, and they’ve been saying that they’ve done so much work, but yet youth voter turnout hasn’t increased,” Coelius-Keplinger said.

In its first year, the campaign will focus on just over 1 million students at schools in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri and South Dakota, Coelius said.

In the future, he said, VFS hopes to expand to reach students across the nation.

Coelius said voting is an easy way to make politicians more responsive to students’ needs.

“It’s very simple,” he said. “(If students) don’t vote, they’re never going to have any power.”

Dylan Thomas welcomes comments at [email protected]