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Presidential campaign inspires young voters

Tuesday, November 11, 2008 | 4:35 p.m. CST; updated 10:05 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Canvassers Katie Barnes, left, Darryl Douglas and Yun Zhang go through lists of registered voters on Election Day 2008 to remind people to vote.

COLUMBIA — For Jony Rommel, the past four months have been more than just a lead-up to a presidential election. They've been a life-changing experience.

Rommel, a 20-year-old MU journalism major, returned to her native Pennsylvania over the summer for an internship with a television station. In July, she began volunteering at President-elect Barack Obama's campaign headquarters at Pennsylvania State University in State College, Pa.

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"The people who I worked with, the energy that they had, the passion about the campaign — everyone was there for one cause, to elect Obama as the next president," Rommel said Sunday in a phone interview from Pennsylvania. "I loved that energy. It was really exciting to be there knowing we were doing something so monumental."

The more Rommel volunteered for the campaign, the clearer it became to her that she didn’t want it to end after the election. But that was problematic for Rommel, who knew that with a career in journalism, she would never again be able to work for a candidate. Most news organizations prohibit journalists from taking part in campaigns.

After talking with her family, she decided to take this semester off and join the campaign staff. She worked with another staff member on voter registration and education drives for Penn State off-campus students. About a month before Election Day, Rommel was put in charge of the Get Out the Vote movement for off-campus students as well as eight polling locations.

Rommel's involvement, and that of others like her, translated into higher-than-normal numbers of young voters at the polls. About 23 million Americans under age 30 voted Nov. 4, about 3.4 million more than in 2004, according to Tufts University's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

In other words, young-voter turnout was about 52 percent, up 4 to 5 percentage points from 2004 and 11 percentage points from 2000.

The center also estimates that youth votes accounted for 60 percent of the overall increase in the number of votes, which suggests that this year's election mobilized young people more than any other age groups.

This is particularly significant in that young voters favored Obama 2-to-1 over Republican candidate John McCain, according to the center.

"(We preferred Obama because of) his whole perspective on issues and the things he wanted to bring for this country and the way he reached out to the youth," Rommel said of the young Obama campaign workers. "He understood how involved we wanted to be, and he really took that seriously."

But not all young voters rallied behind Obama. The Associated Press reported that young voters in states such as Arkansas, Oklahoma and West Virginia favored McCain by a wide margin, according to exit polls.

Jonathan Ratliff, president of the Mizzou College Republicans, said young voters helped Missouri stay a red state. He said he saw young voters come out strongly in volunteering efforts for McCain's campaign by going door to door and making contact with voters.

"The impact that young people make (is) not so much on the votes that they cast, (but) how they're able to get out the vote," Ratliff said. "We're the grass-roots organization. We can only cast one vote, but we can convince 50 or 100 people to vote — that's 100 more votes."

Ratliff said the involvement of young voters sent a powerful message to the rest of the country, and it was that "we're out there, and we do care about our future and we do make a difference," he said. "We're not apathetic."

Rick Puig, president of Young Democrats of Missouri, said youth involvement in the 2008 election can be summed up in one word: unprecedented.

"There was simply a level of participation, both at the ballot box and in the campaign, the likes of which this country has never seen before," Puig said.

Puig said strong voter registration drives were one factor in heavy youth involvement and high turnout. The other factor was more of a mindset, particularly for Obama supporters, he said.

"Young people definitely felt the urgency that Barack Obama described and felt the issues affecting them significantly," he said. "That drove them not just to the ballot box but to the phones and to the doors for Barack Obama."

Puig said he is confident that young voters will continue to actively participate in the political arena.

That seems to be true for Rommel. Though she jokes that what she wants to do now is catch up on sleep, "I really want to stay involved somehow, now that I have this job," she says.

Rommel, who already has four semesters at MU behind her, hasn't decided whether she will return to school right away. She's considering looking for more internships, or applying for the committee that will handle Obama's inauguration.

One thing is certain, though: Rommel won't go back to studying journalism. "I want to focus my studies on political science now," she said. "I've decided that's what I really want to do."


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