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Getting out youth vote registers on campuses

By Lou Dobbs
CNN

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(CNN) -- College students are expected to turn out in record numbers to vote in November's election. What you may not know is that it's against the law for colleges and universities to fail to encourage student voting.

Tucked inside the Higher Education Act of 1998 is a requirement that colleges must provide voter-registration forms to every enrolled student or risk losing their federal funding.

The law's standard is simply a "good-faith effort," but until a recent study reminded colleges of their obligations, many were not complying with the rule.

In September, a survey conducted by Harvard University's Institute of Politics and The Chronicle of Higher Education found that one-third of the colleges and universities surveyed "fall seriously short of either the letter or the spirit of the law."

"This report landed like a bombshell," said David King, lecturer in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and associate director of the Institute of Politics.

"It got a huge amount of attention from university administrators," who jumped to comply with the law once they were informed of their negligence, he said. A group of House Democrats also seized on the study, sending a letter urging college and university associations to improve their efforts to promote student voting.

"Many colleges think that as long as they let somebody from Rock the Vote on campus or if they have active college Democrats and college Republicans that they're just fine," King said. "But the fact is that 41 percent of college students are independent. These partisan groups don't appeal to the nonpartisan folks. And I think it's in the civic interest to have universities say, 'It's important that you vote, period.' "

Recent polls suggest efforts to convince college students to register and to vote will be successful this year. The latest Institute of Politics survey reported 62 percent of college students said they would "definitely" vote in this election, though King warned that people aren't always honest with pollsters when asked about voting intentions.

And the University of Maryland's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement reported that 80 percent of young registered voters said they intend to vote in this election. In contrast, about 36 percent of nearly 24 million eligible 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 2000 election.

New voter registration among 18- to 24-year-olds is difficult to gauge on a national scale, but a Pew Research Center poll from September showed 58 percent of young people are registered to vote, up from 47 percent in 2000.

Youth voter-promotion organizations also report strong response to their registration drives. The New Voters Project has directly registered 340,000 college-age students in six states, said Adam Alexander, the group's communications coordinator. Rock the Vote, an organization sponsored by MTV, claims that more than 1.3 million people have registered through its Web site and campus campaigns. Declare Yourself reports it has registered nearly 1 million new voters. And there are many other registration campaigns dedicated to getting out the youth vote.

Despite an assumption that Sen. John Kerry "has the lock on the youth vote, the polling just doesn't bear that out," the New Voters Project's Alexander said. Indeed, recent polls show youth candidate preference shifting week to week. This volatility adds to the potential weight of youth influence on the vote.

But even as campuses have redoubled their efforts to promote student voting, obstacles may remain on the local government level. In one well-publicized case, the county registrar told student activists at the University of Arizona that registering out-of-state students to vote in Arizona could be considered a felony.

"There's a natural resistance to having a bunch of outsiders come to town who don't have long-term commitment to the community and voting in local elections," King said.

Rock the Vote has been assuring students that they have the right to register to vote in the state where they live during school, with their campus residence as their permanent address. Rock the Vote cites a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court ruling to back up this view.

But according to King, "it's not clear how much of a precedent that actually sets. That's an area of law that will have to be determined later on."


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