Cambridge, Mass. — Will college students how up in force at the polls this year? If the 1,600 or so student leaders and organizers at a student voter-registration conference at Harvard University last weekend have their way, the answer will be are sounding yes.
But 1,600 voters hardly make a dent in the electroal process, compated to the huge voter-registration drives mounted in recent years by other groups, including Moral Majority and the League of Women voters. In fact, Moral majority says it registered more than 4 million new voters in 1980.
The Harvard students at the conference agreed that they have their work cut out for them. Much has changed since the campus activism of the 1960s, when massive student demonstrations against the Vietnam war and in support of civil rights and other issues united students in a common set of causes.
Students now are often labeled as "apathetic" and "self-concerned" as a voting group. And only about one-fourth of the nation's college students are currently registered to vote, according to Thomas Wathen of the Colorado Public Research Interest Group (PIRG). But some leaders at the conference said that students today are making their concerns known through more traditional channels such as lobbying groups.
"I have seen a resurgence of activism and interest in the issues, but it is a new kind of activism -- one which is more pragmatic, more focused," said Rich McLintock, leader of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, chapter of the Massachusetts PIRG.
Mr. McLintock said students learned "organizing skills" during the '70s that allowed them to "connect that interest to the political process." One example, he says, is the environmental movement, which grew out from small, grass-roots groups into large-scale organizations.
Whether conference organizers will reach their hoped-for goal of 2 million new registered student voters remains to be seen.
In a recent voter-registration drive at UMass-Amherst, 2,500 new voters were registered over a seven-day period McLintock said -- the best results of any drive yet conducted at this school. He said he hopes to duplicated or exceed these numbers in September, when the school mounts its biggest campaign to get students signed up to vote.
But the student leaders meeting at Harvard shared their frustration over sometimes complex and intractable registration procedures. Some said county registrars refused to come to the campuses to register students. Other cited quirks in registration laws that prevented them from voting on their campuses.
In New York State, for example, it is difficult for students to vote in the county where their school is located, since they are not considered to be permanent residents. In others, students can only vote as absentees from their home towns -- a procedure which, if it doesn't at least appear complicated, often ends up being so.
An unusual number of students are registering to vote in North Carolina, said on student government representative, Sharon Moylan of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her state is embroiled in a nationally watched contest in which popular Gov. James Hunt is vying for the seat of conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R).
There is a "strong contingent" of students supporting each of the two Senate candidates, she said, and interest in the state races seems likly to supersede involvement in the presidential race.