Organizations helping college students become more active in elections

Wednesday, December 14, 2011 | 7:57 p.m. CST; updated 8:04 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Roshaunda McLean, left, shows a Missouri voter registration form to sophomore Ashton Chandler while freshman Matt Keese fills out a registration form outside the MU Student Center on Wednesday morning. McLean is the president of Mizzou Change Today, an organization that encourages young people to vote.

COLUMBIA — On a cold day at the end of November, two students sat at a table outside the MU Student Center equipped with multiple clipboards and a banner that read: "Register to vote today."

Inside the center, several more students wandered around, talking to colleagues and encouraging them to make themselves eligible to vote in Boone County.


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The students were members of Mizzou Change Today, a group affiliated with Students for Barack Obama. For three days, members registered students to vote in one of the group’s main events this semester. Altogether, they registered 315 students.

"I want to make sure students have a voice," Roshaunda McLean, president of Mizzou Change Today, said. 

In Boone County, students on both sides of the political aisle are proving they are enthusiastic about getting involved during presidential election years, but the number of students voting in off-year elections remains low.

In the presidential election of 2008, for example, 65.5 percent of registered 18- to 24-year-olds in Boone County cast ballots. That was well above the nationwide rate of 49 percent voter turnout among that age group, according to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Similarly, 68.8 percent of 18- to 24-year-old registered voters in Boone County went to the polls during the 2004 presidential election, compared with 47 percent nationwide. The overall national turnout in both those elections was 64 percent, the Census Bureau reported.

By contrast, 13.7 percent of the 18- to 24-year-old group voted in Boone County in the off-year election of November 2010.

Participation by student-age voters drops even more precipitously during April municipal elections. Eight months ago, when there were races for Columbia City Council and school board seats, only 1.9 percent of registered 18- to 24-year-olds went to the polls.

The number of 18- to 24-year-olds getting involved in other ways, however, remains high.

Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren said she is seeing great levels of participation by students from MU and other area colleges. During the 2008 presidential election, for example, 40 percent of poll workers were students.

That high student involvement might be due in part to a grant MU's Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs received in 2008 from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to enroll students as poll workers. Through that effort, 634 students from MU, Columbia College and Stephens College registered to become election judges; 447 worked throughout Boone County on Election Day in November 2008.

The Truman School has received another grant from the Election Assistance Commission to recruit students with disabilities as poll workers.

Many election systems are moving toward using more technical equipment such as electronic poll books. This technology was implemented in Boone County in 2010 and processes voter check-ins faster than paper listings. Data is available on individual PC networks for each polling place.

With the average age of poll workers in Missouri being 72, one goal of the Election Assistance Commission grant is to encourage students to volunteer because they have more experience with this equipment. 

"There are these technical needs that students are able to fill far better than the typical poll worker," Emily Johnson, a policy analyst with the Institute of Public Policy in the Truman School, said.

There are challenges to working with students, however. One is that they graduate and move away from Boone County. Noren said about 20 percent of the students who worked the polls in November 2008 returned to work during the 2010 off-year elections.

"I could not have done it without them," Noren said.

Mizzou Change Today members are preparing to become poll workers. Noren spoke at a Mizzou Change Today meeting last month to give the group information on voting requirements.

The MU College Republicans also are preparing to ramp up for next year's election. Amanda Swysgood, vice chairwoman of MU’s College Republicans, said the group gives students a good way to get involved in campaigns and other volunteer work.

"Campaigns work hard to get college volunteers because they're most excited," Swysgood said.

In order to see better turnout at the polls, Swysgood said it's important to make election issues relatable for students.

"If they don't think their votes count, they won't think they need to vote," Swysgood said. "We don't just go around talking about taxes but taxes in the context of tuition."

Johnson, of the Truman School, agreed, saying students would get involved if they knew there was a place for them to serve and an important role for them to play.

"Once they see that they can make a difference, they gravitate towards that," Johnson said.

While students can be targeted in different ways, it is still vital that they educate themselves on the issues.

"I think it's important for our generation to understand what's going on because we have the most investment in the future," Swysgood said. "All that is going on right now will affect our age group the most."

"We all have beliefs and values," Swysgood said, "but if they aren't put into practice they aren't worth much."

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Corey Parks December 15, 2011 | 9:29 a.m.

Why is it that group are not organized to just register people to vote. They always have to be affiliated with a left or right group. Everyone seems to always have a motive for something more then "just get young people to vote"

I for one believe that it is a well known process on how to vote and what is needed especially to a college level student that if they want to vote they will do it on their own. If you have to hold someones hand through the process then they probably should not be voting in the first place.

Also how could it be that "Mizzou Change Today members are preparing to become poll workers. Noren spoke at a Mizzou Change Today meeting last month to give the group information on voting requirements" could be allowed to vote the polls considering the group affiliation with Students for Barack Obama? I would say the same thing for Students for Romney or Paul or anyone else.
Why they are voting why don't they let the fox tend to the chickens until they return? COME ON PEOPLE OPEN YOUR EYES!

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 15, 2011 | 10:34 a.m.

Corey, I believe it's state law that requires equal number of poll workers from both the Democratic and Republican parties be present. Basically you should never see a single person working by themselves in the polling process except maybe when your ballot is turned in and scanned by yourself. At my polling place, there is always at least two if not three folks working the front end of the line and at least two people where you pick up your ballot.

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks December 15, 2011 | 12:42 p.m.

Thanks John. I know that there is always more then one person there. Heck every ballot station I have ever been to had no less then 6 people there. I did notice that not a one of them was below the age of 50.
My point is that I would think that something as sacred as voting should have some higher standards as in terms of who you represent when you are working there. I know they can not campaign within 100 ft of the front doors or put up signs close to the polls (with the exception of the New Black Panther Party) but just the fact that they are there seems a bit shady. No I don't think these kids are anywhere on the same level as ACORN or what is now Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment.
I guess to me it just seem that someone that is very active in Students for Barack Obama or Students for Newt would not be a good fit to work a polling station as much as they would for going around town during election day and reminding people to go vote.

(Report Comment)
Roshaunda McLean December 15, 2011 | 1:11 p.m.

Mizzou Change Today was an organization created in 2008 to election President Barack Obama into presidency. I, Roshaunda McLean, the newly appointed president of Mizzou Change Today, has revised and reworked the vision and mission of Mizzou Change Today: We are a bipartisan political activism organization that campaigns for progressive politicians at the national, state, and local levels while educating ourselves ans our peers on prevalent and important issues.

We support all candidates who we believe are working towards a better America in favor of the youth–despite one's political party.

There truly is nothing "shady" about Mizzou Change Today members volunteering as poll workers. We feel that it is our duty as American citizens to be educated on, and take part in the democracy process.

If you have any further questions or concerns regarding Mizzou Change Today, feel free to contact me.

Thank you.

(Report Comment)

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