Voter Ed -- Of, For and By Students
Presidential candidates began launching their campaigns after the midterm elections in November, but Matthew Segal’s campaign for 2008 was inspired much earlier -- on November 2, 2004 .
Then, as a freshman at Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, he spent much of Election Day waiting in line to vote. With just two machines allotted to the polling place near the campus, students waited for as many as 12 hours, he said, enduring rainy weather and missing classes.
The news coming from elsewhere in Ohio and from college campuses across the country wasn’t much better. “There were all these instances of voter suppression,” he said, “and a lot of them came from college areas.”
Segal, now preparing to begin his senior year at Kenyon, quickly became a poster child for frustrated young voters. Several news organizations interviewed him in the days after the troubled vote and he testified at hearings to describe what he saw at the polls.
But Segal was one of the few students to seize on the problems students had in voting on campus and to try to take action. “Some students at Kenyon used what happened on Election Day to step on a platform to talk about voting and civic engagement, but not too many other students were,” he said. “And it wasn’t something our media was giving any attention to.”
In May, he founded the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE), a non-partisan group inspired by his experience at the polls in 2004, to lobby for election reform and to coordinate efforts to improve voting access and education for college students. For now, it is mostly sponsored by donations from individuals and has partnerships with Mobilize.org, Common Cause and FairVote.
Unlike other groups aimed at young voters like Rock the Vote, which began in the music industry, SAVE was created for college students and is staffed entirely by college students. Segal is SAVE’s executive director and the other six members of the organization’s national staff are college students, too. They’re all going into their junior or senior years in college, and go to Colgate University, Georgetown University, Miami University of Ohio, St. Lawrence University and Kenyon.
“We’re at an advantage in that our national staff oversees operations as insiders,” Segal said. “We’re able to promote an agenda at the national level and then enforce it … take it back to our own campuses.” SAVE, he said, is the only student group working on election reform policy.
Students from 19 institutions have signed on to create local chapters this fall. In addition to chapters that will be started by the national staff, students from Mississippi State University, Purdue University and the College of William and Mary, among other institutions, have committed to start chapters this fall, Segal said.
Projects will focus on two main issues: increasing accessibility to the polls for young voters by lobbying for Election Day registration and easier-to-obtain absentee ballots, and encouraging students to become lifelong voters by giving them a strong civic education with informational campaigns and a tutoring program on civics for underprivileged high school students.
Campus-based and national groups have focused their efforts in recent election years on voter registration and get out the vote campaigns. Surveys from the 2006 elections showed higher levels of voter turnout among college students than in 2002, the previous mid-presidential term election year. The University of Colorado at Denver attracted students to vote by holding a "party at the polls," an attraction likely to be used often at campus polling places in 2008.
But efforts to register and mobilize college students are what caused problems at Kenyon and elsewhere in 2004, Segal said, so SAVE's local chapters will work to make sure that enough voting machines are being allocated to campus polling places.
Critics say that colleges and universities generally don't do enough to help their students vote, in part because administrators tend not to put enough energy into ensuring that students are able to vote on Election Day or encouraging them to vote. "Many institutions of higher education are not making a good faith effort on student engagement in the electoral process," said Jennifer S. Pae, president of the United States Student Association at a seminar on voter mobilization in June at the national conference of Campus Progress, the student branch of the Center for American Progress.
Heather Smith, executive director of Young Voter Strategies, a nonprofit research group that works to figure out what gets voters 18 to 29 to the polls, said at the Campus Progress seminar that "getting colleges to make Election Day a holiday" could make a difference in getting students to the polls. Regardless of whether a day off to vote would boost levels of participation, Segal said, “Our higher education institutions are doing an awfully poor job encouraging civic education and voting."
Kathleen Barr, director of research and education for Young Voter Strategies, which on Monday became part of Rock the Vote, declined to comment on whether voting groups created for students by students could be more effective than ones led by staffs long out of college. “It depends from group to group,” she said.
Nonetheless, the grown up leaders of groups for students do realize the need for students to be part of student movements. “If you’re going to be in school in ’08, work on mobilization, elections, campaigns,” said David Rosenfeld, campus program director at Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), at the Campus Progress seminar. “ ‘Young people don’t vote’ is a downward spiral that we’ve got to stop … but only young people can stop it.”
Segal said he thinks that campaigns like Rock the Vote, Vote or Die and Choose or Lose, all of which were active in the 2004 presidential election cycle, which use pop culture to get young people to register to vote and hopefully to show up at polling places, take the wrong approach. (Vote or Die spokespeople Paris Hilton and Sean “Diddy” Combs didn’t get their own message and never managed to register themselves to vote.)
“We’re not a firm believer in using pop culture,” he explained. “There’s certainly no educational ethic behind a catch phrase like ‘Rock the Vote’ or a slogan like ‘Vote or Die.’ ”
Instead, SAVE aims to teach students about civic engagement to get them to vote. “You can register all the voters you want,” Segal said, “but you can’t make them vote.” The group will teach students to fish for a lifetime, so to speak, rather than giving them a fish to eat once.
Local chapters will hold bipartisan issue forums and offer tutoring and outreach to pre-college students about civic engagement and the importance of voting. The national organization is planning to launch a youth poll worker program aimed at getting students to volunteer locally come Election Day and chapters will work with the Election Assistance Commission on poll worker training sessions.
Anna Salzberg, a Kenyon junior who is the group’s director of development, said that she sees current college students as “a pretty issue-oriented generation.” With its focus on civic engagement, she hopes the group will “foster a generation of people who are passionate about issues and vote based on issues.”
At Middlebury College in Vermont, for instance, “everyone cares about the environment, but they don’t necessarily see the connection between caring about the environment and then voting,” she said. “Who knows where Hillary, Obama, Giuliani or any of the other candidates stand on the issues? It’s really tough to tell without putting a lot of work into figuring it out.”
SAVE’s job, then, is to help young voters figure it out.
“This is a student organization leading on the ground from an insider’s perspective,” Segal said. “Unlike a teacher, a parent or some other adult, we’re not condescending to students -- we are students.”