Student groups seek to curb voter apathy

Groups like MSA and MPIRG hope to register 5,000 students leading up to November’s election.

If college students statewide turn out at the polls this Election Day, some experts say they could shake up the election’s results, since voter participation tends to dip in non-presidential elections.

“We’re bound to see a number of Minnesota House and statewide elections that will be close, decided by a small number of voters,” said Humphrey School of Public Affairs professor Larry Jacobs. “If students show up, they could be the kingmakers.”

While Minnesota is a national leader for youth voter turnout during presidential election years, non-presidential elections still draw far fewer voters — a trend some University of Minnesota student groups hope to change this year.

The state’s last non-presidential election in 2010 drew less than two-thirds of registered voters under the age of 24. Two years later, more than 90 percent of registered citizens in that age range cast a ballot.

To attract University students to the polls this fall, several student groups plan to hold events to help them register.

“We always partner with as many student groups as we can — College Democrats, College Republicans, Minnesota Public Interest Research Group,” said Drew Coveyou, communications director for the Minnesota Student Association. “That helps us broaden our reach.”

To target freshmen who may be changing their permanent address for the first time, MPIRG and MSA will canvass dorms on the day before elections, MPIRG co-chair Nolan Schmidt said.

“More than any segment of the population, young voters are more mobile and less tied to an address,” said Doug Chapin, elections administration expert and teaching specialist for the Humphrey School. “The question of ‘How do I get registered in my jurisdiction?’ can be a barrier.”

By tabling at events like the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence Kickoff and Explore-U, Schmidt said the groups hope to register 5,000 students.

“If they’re on the edge of voting, it’s easier to do it now, instead of at the polls,” he said. “With midterms around election time, it’s really important to register earlier.”

Schmidt said similar voter outreach has been successful in the past, claiming that his group’s efforts boosted voter turnout for the last fall’s city election compared to the 2009 mayoral vote.

The possibility of low turnout for young voters creates a different electoral landscape for officials who won their races during presidential elections, Jacobs said, like Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and the DFL-majority state Legislature.

Voter turnout can be influenced by whether an individual feels their vote will count or how convenient a trip to the polls is, Chapin said.

But he also noted that the most significant factor is whether a person gets a sense of satisfaction through civic engagement.

“Registration goes up as age goes up,” Chapin said. “It has a lot to do with a sense of connectedness — you settle in a community, you own a house, you’ve been there for a while. That’s where the civic duty aspect kicks in.”

According to a review of the 2010 Census by Nonprofit VOTE, there was a 34 percent gap in voter turnout between individuals who had lived in their current location for less than a year and those who had resided there for at least five years.

While issues like the legalization of marijuana or same-sex marriage tend to capture public attention, Chapin said, smaller elections tend to gain less traction with voters.

“Voting for president — we’re all connected there,” he said. “I think not everyone feels that way about down-ballot races.”