Getting students to the polls

As the 2004 presidential election draws closer, VCU students are hearing more and more about the importance of their registering and voting.

Ken Stroupe, director of the National Youth Leadership Initiative at University of Virginia and former press secretary and communications director for Virginia’s former Republican Gov. and now U.S. Sen. George Allen, said if students don’t vote this year, it’s not because organizations, the media and pop culture didn’t try.

“There is an unprecedented level of outreach this year,” Stroupe said, pointing out that Music Television, Comedy Central and pop stars like rap artist P. Diddy are promoting registration and starting drives to encourage voting. “The level of encouragement seems to be unprecedented this year.”

At VCU, such student groups as the Student Government Association and the VCU Young Democrats are setting up tables to encourage students not only to register for the upcoming election, but also to ensure they vote.

Ali Alikhani, a member of the SGA, heads the group’s legislative committee.

“We’re extremely engaged in voter registration,” he said.

Alikhani, along with other SGA members, said the first step to encourage students to vote is to see that they are registered. SGA members man tables in the Student Commons and other local areas handing out registration forms and absentee ballots to help students register.

Daniel L. Plaugher, a member of VCU’s Young Democrats, an organization that represents liberal students and their involvement in governmental issues including voting, also helps students register and prepare for the Nov. 2 Election Day by setting up registration booths and sponsoring events to educate students about registration and voting.

“I’d rather have someone vote for Bush than not vote at all,” Plaugher said.

Because students and younger generations do not vote, he said, it leads to problems for that generation as they’re not represented as well as they should be in government. So many in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate are older Americans, he said, because students and young people don’t vote as much.

Stroupe estimated the recent polls indicate student-voter response to be somewhere around 70 percent to 90 percent.

This is much higher than what he predicted will be the actual number of student turnout in this year’s election. As with other demographics, he pointed out that many more say they will go out to vote than actually do.

Stroupe described the high poll turnout as “the political equivalent of a New Year’s resolution” that “doesn’t materialize into the action itself.”

Despite the strong push from media and student organizations like VCU’s Young Democrats, College Republicans and SGA, election numbers have shown that students do not vote as much as elder generations.

Herbert Hirsch, a VCU political science professor, attributed this general apathy to the idea that the students who don’t actually vote just aren’t as concerned about politics when compared to older generations.

“They feel that politics are not important in this stage of their lives,” Hirsch said, adding that the students don’t vote because they consider it irrelevant. He said that events that have happened in the past, such as Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal, have “increased cynicism” among many potential young voters.

Nathan Ferrance, a 20-year-old interior-design major, said some students think their vote doesn’t count because of the way the Electoral College is set up, emphasizing that sometimes votes get lost in the shuffle.

“The fact that if their state’s votes go toward the candidate that they didn’t vote for, it then makes them feel their vote counted for nothing,” he said. “Also, the fact that the popular vote sometimes doesn’t reflect the outcome of the election (can alienate voters).”

Carol Sabatino, a member of VCU’s Young Democrats, considered it extremely important that students vote so their voices are heard as a generation.

“It’s not just another election year that the Democrats will say ‘We actually have a chance.’ It’s really true this time. This could possibly be the most important presidential election of our lifetime. Not just in Virginia but for the U.S.”

While Alikhani works to promote registration and young-voter involvement through SGA, he viewed the young voters as thinking they’ve never been taken seriously in their lives, so why should they think that they’re being taken seriously now.

Alikhani pointed to his own organization as a potential problem that could lead to student apathy.

“Student government is not taken seriously here at VCU,” he said, and because SGA is not generally regarded by VCU students and university officials as a serious policy-making organization, it further degrades the voice of the individual student.

As a result this leads to students not caring about participating in any type of government whether it’s student, local or national.

“Our generation always feels like the young generation, and as a result we generally feel like we’re not taken seriously,” Alikhani said.

Plaugher shares a similar view, saying that some students think their voice isn’t recognized or taken seriously by the national government. The reason for this, he said, is because students don’t vote.

“It’s one big circle,” Plaugher said, and as a result some “kids have an animosity toward government.” Since the older generations are the policy-makers, they will tend to pick on younger generations, which frustrates students, he said, so they don’t want to be involved.

“(Students and young voters) feel picked on,” he said. “A younger person is more likely to get a (driving) ticket than an older person.”

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