Voting trends show rise in student turnout

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by Kellie Rowe

For Paul Owen-Smith, voting is something he’s always wanted to do, but can’t.

Despite living in America for most of his life, the MSU environmental biology junior was born in Australia and retained his Australian citizenship, leaving him ineligible to vote.

“It’d be nice to have my voice heard,” Owen-Smith said. “Even if it’s just a tiny fraction of the nation’s population — it still counts.”

Owen-Smith is one of many college-aged students exemplifying the growing trend of youth voters taking an interest in elections. As Election Day draws near and the race between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney grows stronger, students will have to decide whether or not it is worth it to hit the polls this November.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, individuals between the ages of 18 and 24 showed a significant increase in voter turnout in the 2008 national election, and were the only age group to do so. About 28,263,000 individuals in the 18-21 age group cast a vote in the 2008 national election — a 2 percent increase from the 2004 election.

As student voter apathy looms as an impending threat, many national organizations, such as studentvote.org, are working to combat disinterest amongst youth voters. Through a nonpartisan effort, studentvote.org’s Student Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG, New Voters Project aims to spread political awareness and bring young voters to the polls Election Day.

Meghan Hess, a studentvote.org advocate for the PIRG in Michigan, said the group’s data shows a majority of millenials, or those born between 1981 and 1993, participated in community service in high school, and plan to continue in college — a trend she said illustrates students are “getting involved.”

The organization works to continue students’ involvement in the community through voting. Hess said the group’s experience show the most effective tactic to bringing youth voters to the polls is simply asking the students to take a look at each party’s platforms.

“Cycle after cycle, we see that when young people are asked to vote and asked to participate, they do,” Hess said. “Through our work, we know that over 70 percent of students who register with our program vote. “

According to studentvote.org data, young voter turnout grew 9 percent in 2004, increased by another 2 million votes in 2006 and the amount of voters under 30 increased by about 11 percent by 2008.

Hess said the numbers don’t lie, and the organization is pleased with the results.

“We have been doing this work because we believe democracy is strongest when citizens participate,” Hess said. “Young people are the future of our country, so it’s important for them to be engaged.”

Owen-Smith said many of his friends have shown voter apathy, and he is pleased the national trend shows students are getting involved.

“It’s a symptom of the a larger problem of the American public,” Owen-Smith said. “They no longer take interest and pride in the nation’s politics and they’re letting the system grow lax and weak.”

As national trends show a large youth voter turnout, local elections illustrate a similar pattern. About 7,095 individuals in the 18-21 age group voted in East Lansing’s 2012 state general election — the highest-voting age group of the election, according to voter turnout data collected by East Lansing city clerk Marie McKenna.

Despite the large number of college-aged voters in the city’s election, McKenna said from her experience working in East Lansing, she noticed local elections have a much smaller turnout than national elections.

“The national races appear to be a much bigger draw than local races — city council, for example,” McKenna said. “It would be great to see students come out for council elections because the policies and ordinances they enact closely impact students.”

Owen-Smith said he wasn’t surprised the amount of individuals between 18 and 21 years of age who voted in East Lansing was so high.

“We live in a college town and the student population is huge,” Owen-Smith said. “This is good sign and hopefully more students will make vote in the national election.”

As youth voters head to the polls this November, MSU economics professor Charles Ballard said students should be aware of each party’s plans for their future.

Ballard specifically cited the controversial budget proposed by Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, which Ballard said proposes to cut about $170 billion from the Pell Grant program during the next 10 years.

“Pell grants provide financial support for students to go to college … (and) what he proposes is slower growth on the Pell grants,” Ballard said, adding about 1 million students would lose their Pell Grant funding entirely.

Owen-Smith said while many students don’t fully appreciate their eligibility to vote, they should take into consideration the impact a politician’s decisions can have on their lives.

“It determines their future and if they want the wrong people making all their choices for them, then they shouldn’t vote,” Owen-Smith said. “But if I could, I would.”

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