Voter registration turnout is high for big election year

The lunch rush comes to Baxter on Wednesday, and for the third week in a row students slow down to look at the voter registration table as they pass by.

“Are you registered to vote?” Cathryn Christensen ’01 asks one such passerby, who looks around sheepishly.

“I don’t think so,” comes the reply from the student, Jessica Tierney ’03.

Christensen pushes on. “Do you want to?”

After a pause, Tierney answers quietly, “I should.” She walks over to the table and Christensen hands her a form and opens the registration pamphlet to show her how to begin. Two minutes later, the voter registration campaign has tallied yet another student-voter in its ledger.

All told, the campaign helped hundreds of students like Tierney register for the first time or get absentee ballots from their home states, according to project organizer Kristin Wikelius ’01. “It’s really important that people participate in the political process,” said Wikelius, who hopes that her campaign will help students form habits of political involvement. “Unless young people vote more, nobody’s going to listen to our concerns.”

Wikelius worked on similar voter registration campaigns each of the last two years with the Voter Information Service. For this year’s drive, Wikelius recruited volunteers from the new Students for Social Justice group (SSJ), which is also organizing a “voter awareness” project.

The passing of state deadlines has spelled the end of the on campus campaign. Its legacy, an enthusiastic student response to political involvement, seems surprising for a campus frequently maligned in the editorial pages of this and other papers as apathetic. Christensen, who estimates the effort registered 1,000 students, cites the recent slowdown in signups as evidence of the campaign’s effectiveness. So many new voters registered early on that few students needed the service by its last week, said Wikelius, who estimates that 200 new voters registered.

Christensen attributes the success of the project to this year’s high-profile presidential election. According to Christensen, the most popular debate between students who come to register or sign up for absentee ballots has been whether liberals should vote for Ralph Nader or Al Gore.

Tierney, the student who Christensen drafted into the political ring, said voting is “something I feel like I should do.” Even so, she had not planned to vote in the November election because, like many other students that have used the service, she did not know how to register.

The project has no political agenda beyond increasing student involvement, despite the leftist tendencies of many of its volunteers. Christensen says the process is completely non-partisan, and that the forms are confidential. Rory Kramer ’03, an SSJ member, is working on both campaigns. Kramer said he sometimes has difficulty restraining his own political leanings when registering people. However, Kramer believes people understand he is joking when he tells them, “I’m not going to let you register if you think you’re voting for Bush.”

Other volunteers have no particular partisan interest in helping the cause.

Victor Platt ’02 got involved with the registration campaign because he knows he would have used the service himself. Said Platt, “You put in a little effort and reap so much reward; what you learn about issues and the roles people can play.”

Teague Orgeman ’03 registered to vote for the first time. “There really hasn’t been any election I’ve been interested in,” said Orgeman. Orgeman said he would have registered even if this were not a presidential election year, but he is looking forward to voting for Ralph Nader. “Even if you are voting for Ric Flair or Mickey Mouse, you have a right you need to exercise,” said Orgeman.

Thanks to the campaign, voters like Orgeman and Tierney will exercise that right for the first time this November. And regardless of whose name they punch or write-in, the volunteers will go home feeling rewarded.

“I don’t know how people vote,” said Wikelius. “It’s more important that they are voting. That is broader than the outcome of one election.”