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Campuses gear-up voter registration efforts ahead of general election

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CANTON — Four years ago, President Barack Obama was carried to victory by a wave of first-time voters, many of them college students who had recently become eligible to vote.

Now a new group of young people will enter the voting booth for the first time, but their numbers and enthusiasm may not match the historic 2008 election.

William A. Hunt, a retired St. Lawrence University history professor, has helped the League of Women Voters staff a table on the university’s campus.

“We started in 1992 and try to do a little bit during every election year,” he said. “I am working with student groups, like the Women’s Resource Center, and various student volunteers.”

Mr. Hunt said his efforts resulted in 57 new registrations on the first day of the university’s student organization fair. As of Wednesday, he had registered 120 students.

“I expect we’ll at least double that, but that’s not counting the people we’ve given advice to,” he said. “We have been telling students that anyone at St. Lawrence can register to vote in Canton.”

At SUNY Canton, Student Government Association President Nafeesa Johnson helped organize a voter registration and participation effort called Rock the Roo on Thursday. The event covered the Richard W. Miller Campus Center with enthusiastic volunteers registering new voters as a disc jockey pumped hip-hop sounds throughout its atrium.

“This is the biggest registration event we’ve done,” Ms. Johnson said. “I think students are elated because it gives them a purpose.”

Part of the SUNY Canton SGA’s efforts was informational sheets to instruct students on the major political parties’ positions.

“It’s to give students a basic knowledge of what they’re about,” she said. “We let them choose for themselves, but they need to know how to pick a party.”

The event culminated in a mock debate Thursday evening where students could come and voice their opinions on the issues.

“We have to motivate students to go to the dining hall. To exercise,” Ms. Johnson said. “This is just one more part of it.”

Elizabeth A. Connolly, SUNY Canton human resources director, was directing a parallel effort with the American Association of University Women.

“As a staffer here, wearing the hat of a member of AAUW, we are trying to get the word out to vote,” she said. “Our role is just making sure that folks realize how important it is.”

SUNY Potsdam is setting up a series of events to register voters, educate them on the key issues in this year’s election and help them get to the polls.

The Campus Life office, collaborating with other groups on campus, is preparing for a voter registration drive Oct. 3, followed by an informational session hosted by student groups Oct. 25 and a mock debate Nov. 1.

“We want to delve into issues at large and help students understand where candidates stand,” said Julie M. Dodd, associate director of campus life. “The one on the 25th will identify different clubs and organizations and have them talk about how various issues affect what they believe in. The event on Nov. 1 will feature two politics professors tackling the issues.”

Clarkson University is making no official effort to register students, but did send out an email with instructions for registration and voting by absentee ballot. Registration and absentee ballot forms also are available on the university’s website.

The Association for Creative Thought is sponsoring a voter registration drive on campus, said William A. Wimmer, the student group’s president.

“We’re going to be doing a three-day voter registration drive at our student center next week, Tuesday through Thursday,” he said, adding that voter awareness materials were published regularly in the student newspaper, The Integrator. “We’ve been publishing everything that you get with voter registration.”

Although in 2008 the youth vote broke heavily for Mr. Obama, this year’s student voters shouldn’t be seen as a monolithic voting bloc.

“In this election, it is clear that students are up for grabs,” Mr. Hunt said. “There is a great deal of talk about the legacy of the deficit. More immediately, there is the issue of student loans and Pell grants.”

Mr. Wimmer said students’ interests are diverse and not easily classified along party lines.

“Clarkson is very diverse. Primarily we look at things like unemployment and the strength of the economy,” he said. “Military affairs are important because of our high percentage of active duty troops, ROTC members and veterans. Defense and security and international relations become a large motivator. We also have things like birth control, health care, pro-life versus pro-choice; all of those become important.”

At Canton, Ms. Johnson said students likely would turn out in strong numbers once more because politicians were paying closer attention to them.

“I see the push because the candidates have been doing a lot of speeches on college campuses,” she said. “Students are the easiest people to motivate.”

Voter participation volunteers on all four campuses emphasized the importance of encouraging young people to cast a ballot.

“The obvious answer is that it is just very important in a democracy,” Mr. Hunt said. “This is a kind of habit that gets formed very early. People who vote early continue to vote.”

All four campuses are committed to making it easier for students to access polls, providing rides to polling places and information about absentee ballots, especially to students from swing states.

Ms. Johnson is organizing buses to help SUNY Canton students vote.

“We’re going to run a shuttle service,” she said. “We’re going to do round trips taking students to the polls. We’re reminding them with flyers, mass emails, messages on whiteboards in residence halls. Students are going to play a big role again this year.”

“If their home is in one of the swing states, we tell them that if they are really concerned about their vote counting, they may want to vote by absentee ballot,” Mr. Hunt said.

In addition, at Clarkson and Potsdam, students will gather Nov. 6 to watch the results come in.

“We’ll have a big election night open house with five to six channels of election results playing,” Ms. Dodd said. “We’ll involve students and inform them of the importance of how the states go. It will be a busy, long night.”

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