Key U.S. elections take place next month. This week Indiana University students scrambled to boost participation of young voters, which is historically low.
(Video by Austin Faulds)
By Alex Hardgrave
Students criss-crossed Indiana University’s campus in the United States this week, clipboards in hand and one question on their lips: “Are you registered to vote?”
Tuesday was the deadline in Indiana for registering to vote in local, regional and national elections set for next month, and volunteers had their hands full.
A novice volunteer, Ben Kovitz wandered the sprawling campus for five hours, urging students to sign up so they could cast a ballot on November 6, when all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 35 of 100 Senate posts are up for grabs.
Kovitz was volunteering for Liz Watson, the Democratic Party’s candidate challenging the incumbent Republican Party congressman in the district that includes the university.
Kovitz said he fears for American democracy and the rule of law if more people don’t vote. “I think we’re in danger of losing all that,” he said.
“Every vote is important.”
The stakes are high in these polls, called “midterm elections” because they fall half-way through the U.S. president’s four-year term of office. Currently, both chambers of Congress are controlled by President Donald Trump’s Republican Party. The political party of presidents in their first term typically faces an uphill battle in midterm elections.
If Democrats take control of either or both houses of Congress, they could make it difficult for Trump to push through policies. Democrats could also use Congress’s powers to investigate Trump, who is facing a series of lawsuits connected to his business empire and presidential campaign.
Any move to impeach Trump would have to be initiated in the lower house, which polls indicate could fall to the Democrats.
Historically, the percentage of eligible U.S. students who have voted has lagged behind that of the rest of the population, offering an opportunity for both major political parties to sign up newcomers.
Kovitz said he believes every vote is important and urged students to participate because they will have to live with the results the longest.
“They do not listen to us because we don’t vote.”
Campus Action for Democracy, a two-year-old student organization, was also registering students on campus. The group is not affiliated with the university’s administration or any political party.
Lead organizer Tracey Hutchings-Goetz said about 50 student and faculty volunteers from the group helped with sign-ups, setting up tables and visiting classrooms, houses and even local bars.
Fewer than one in 10 Indiana University students voted in the 2014 midterm elections, which according to Hutchings-Goetz means elected officials may not represent student interests.
“They do not come to campus, they do not listen to us and they do not work for us because we don’t vote,” she said.
To help ensure students who register end up actually voting next month, Campus Action for Democracy collects students’ names, phone numbers and emails, and then reminds them ahead of election day. More than 1,000 students on the group’s list had pledged to vote, Hutching-Goetz said. There are more than 48,000 students on Indiana University’s main campus.
“It’s your patriotic duty.”
Indiana University is participating in a friendly competition among 14 big U.S. universities meant to spur voter registration and turnout among students.
The Big Ten Voting Challenge will offer two awards: one to the university with the highest voter turnout percentage among eligible voters on campus, and a second to the university that shows the biggest improvement in turnout.
Jenna Comins-Addis, a student in her final year, said she registered when she was a sophomore before the 2016 presidential election and plans to vote in the midterms less than a month from now.
“I think it’s important for students to vote because it’s your patriotic duty,” she said. “It is something that not all people in this world get to do. Democracy is a privilege, not a right.”
People have the right not to vote, she added. But she said she votes to help protect equal rights and the environment.
First-year student Ally Duran had not yet completed the registration process but planned to do so before the midnight deadline.
“I never thought I would want to vote, but this year made me want to vote,” she said. “If you don’t think it is important to you, I would think again, because I never thought I would think voting is important.”
Duran and Evan De St Jeor, in his last year of study, said they wanted to collect more information before deciding how to cast their ballots.
“As young people, we should start deciding our own futures and start taking the initiative to make the futures that we want,” De St Jeor said.
Alex Hardgrave is in her first year studying Journalism at Indiana University, where she is covering business for the Indiana Daily Student newspaper. While in high school in Indiana, she worked on the school newspaper for three years and was editor-in-chief her final year.
Austin Faulds is a Journalism student at Indiana University. He has reported for the International Press Institute, a global free press advocacy organization in Vienna, as well as for Uganda’s leading newspaper, the Daily Monitor, and is a contributor to Ms. Magazine. A cat lover, he owns six at home in Terre Haute, Indiana.