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.
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."