Schools encourage student registration

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Nationally in 2000, only 42 percent of eligible 18-to-24-year-olds voted. That was down from 55 percent in 1972, the first time that 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds could vote for president.

In Pennsylvania, where 18-to-24-year-olds make up 12 percent of eligible voters, only 36 percent of them turned out in 2000.

“The prediction is that this is going to be a very close election and any increase in young people voting could be the margin,” said Ingrid Reed, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “If on one big college campus you get 2,000 or 3,000 more kids to vote than in the past, it certainly could make a difference. Both parties know that.”

In 2000, Al Gore won Pennsylvania by about 204,000 votes, out of the nearly 4.9 million cast in the state. But in Florida, after the infamous recount, Bush carried the state by 537 votes.

Part of the push this year stems from 1988, when Congress reauthorized the federal Higher Education Act; it requires colleges receiving federal funds to make a “good-faith effort” to help students register to vote.

That has largely not happened, according to a Harvard University Institute of Politics study published this month, which found that “more than one-third of schools fail to meet even the spirit of federal law.”

Schools such as Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University have formed faculty-student groups to push registration in a nonpartisan manner. For instance, earlier this month Temple’s faculty senate paired with the League of Women Voters to hold two days of on-campus student voter-registration drives.

For the political parties, which in recent years have not spent much energy wooing the apparently uninterested youth vote, this election marks a change in course.

To help their 1,200 national chapters register students and recruit volunteers, the College Republicans have hired 60 field representatives. Most are deployed to schools in swing states _ eight in Pennsylvania and six in Ohio. None were sent to New Jersey.

The Republican field representatives report having recruited more than 40,000 students since late August.

“Students are just excited about this election… somewhere from 65 to 70 percent of students say they intend to vote,” said Alison Aikele, communications director for the Washington-based College Republican National Committee, which began at the University of Michigan 112 years ago. “We’re talking about millions of students on campuses across America. It could be a very big deal.”

The Republican recruiters _ like the Democrats _ have focused on students likely to vote their way.

“We’re not here to help the Democrats do their job,” said David Copley, 21, a student at Penn’s Wharton School, who is state chairman of the Pennsylvania Federation of College Republicans. “Our focus is to identify Republican voters and make sure they are registered and that they vote on Election Day.”

On the Democratic side, the college arm of the Democratic National Committee trained 1,500 college students from all 50 states during the party’s Boston convention to carry out recruitment and registration programs in their states.

Earlier this month, DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe made an appearance at Penn along with West Wing actress Melissa Fitzgerald, a Penn graduate.

About 400 students at the Annenberg Center, many waving handmade Kerry-Edwards signs, applauded enthusiastically as McAuliffe blasted President Bush and Fitzgerald criticized his environmental record.

McAuliffe reminded students to vote and to tell friends _ and strangers _ to vote, because Pennsylvania is a must-win swing state for the party.

“Students are known for not necessarily voting in very high numbers, but they are now motivated,” said Richard Eisenberg, 21, head of the Penn Democratic club that organized McAuliffe’s campus visit. “The energy we’ve seen coming back to campus this year is nothing like we’ve had before. We signed up 700 new members last week. It’s been incredible.”