USC student groups steer registration drives
By Gina Goodhill
Special to CNN
Editor's Note: Campus Vibe is a feature that provides student perspectives on the 2004 election from selected colleges across the United States. This week's contributor is Gina Goodhill, student reporter at the Daily Trojan, the University of Southern California student newspaper. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of CNN, its affiliates or the University of Southern California.
LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- When this year's incoming freshman class moved into their dorms during the University of Southern California's orientation week, they were able to meet new roommates, buy textbooks -- and register to vote.
Members of USC College Democrats targeted students exploring campus for the first time during Welcome Week, offering them water bottles and candy as an incentive to register. The group registered 163 students in three days.
"We just want to make [registering] as easy as possible. ... This whole process is difficult. People are looking to vote, but have changed addresses, don't know how to change absentee ballots, etc.," said Lee Sherman, a junior majoring in political science and theater and the president of USC College Democrats.
College Republicans started registering students by tabling at the Involvement Fair on the third day of school.
Many students who approached the group's table said they weren't even aware that USC had a Republican club, according to its chairman, economics major Jeffrey Benford.
But Benford isn't deterred: "This is a really important election, with really important issues at stake. It's better to vote for someone, anyone, than not to vote at all."
Nonpartisan clubs have also made voter registration a main focus, and are eager to increase the level of political involvement among young people.
Youth participation in presidential elections has been steadily declining. According to a study by The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, turnout among young voters has dropped by 13 percent between 1972 and 2000.
In the last presidential election, only 42 percent of people ages 18-24 voted, the same study found.
CIRCLE, based at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, promotes research on the involvement of young Americans in political and civic life.
Parties and politics
The low turnout rate has prompted many student clubs to try new approaches to registering students.
Gina Clayton, president of the USC chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the group has registered over 60 students at a variety of social events.
It registered voters at barbecues during Black Welcome Week and held a voter registration listening party where students could hear singer Jill Scott's latest CD before its official release.
"We try to get people to associate being political with being at a barbeque and being with friends, so it's not always an academic setting," said Clayton, a senior majoring in American Studies and Ethnicity. "[People] need to associate politics with everyday life."
The NAACP chapter now plans to target athletes, a group that Clayton said is composed largely of people of color and makes up a large part of USC's population, yet is often ignored.
"We target particular groups of people who we feel are not being reached out to or encouraged to participate in the political process," Clayton said.
Others are courting members of fraternities and sororities.
"Anyone living in America should exercise their right to vote," said Meredith Schulte, president of the Greek Student Assembly. "Even if they don't like either candidate, they should still be registered so that the option's there."
Schulte, a junior double-majoring in biology and anthropology, plans to attend different chapter meetings and provide interested students with voter registration forms.
Student correspondent Gina Goodhill
"If they're already at a meeting, it might be easier and more successful to register [them] ... as opposed to if their walking down the street," Schulte said.
With so many clubs and organizations participating in the voter registration effort, some had to change their plans.
The Student Senate decided to forgo its voter registration drive this year due to the number of clubs already putting drives on, said Alexander Fore, the Senate's director of political affairs.
He said that Student Senate instead decided to act as an umbrella organization to keep track of all the different drives and to increase communication between clubs about their respective efforts.
"I'm inspired by how much enthusiasm there is on campus," said Fore, a senior majoring in political science and economics.
'Only the first step'
While registering voters is an important first step, there is no guarantee that a registered voter will actually vote.
Ricardo Ramirez, an assistant professor of political science, said that active groups should help examine and explain the various issues in the political spotlight.
"Organizations need to go beyond just registering. [They] need to get people engaged with the issues that are important to them so that they actually vote ... many organizations don't take that second step," Ramirez said.
And while many groups acknowledge they are focusing solely on registration until October 18 -- the voter registration deadline -- they add there are further plans.
Promised action includes spreading informational packets about issues and candidates, organizing on-campus debates, campaigning in swing states and inviting political speakers.
"Voter registration is a very important step," said the NAACP's Clayton. "But it's only the first step."