Lost on campus: the ballot box

Like many of her classmates here on the Regis College campus, freshman Mary Tobin has registered to vote and stands eager to cast a ballot in her first presidential election.

To her chagrin, however, Ms. Tobin has something else in common with a good many of her peers: She's still not sure what voting entails. And with absentee deadlines fast approaching in her native Florida, she's aware hers could become a vote uncounted.

"I have to figure out what I have to do," Tobin says. "And how soon I have to do that."

From here to Berkeley, Calif., indicators suggest college campuses are teeming with an interest in electoral politics unlike anything in the past quarter century. Yet for the 20 million Americans who came of voting age since 2000, getting to the polls for the first time continues to be a process fraught with obstacles and confusion.

Example: 33 percent of the nation's colleges and universities are failing in their legal duty to provide students with voter-registration materials, according to a report released last week by the Harvard Institute of Politics and The Chronicle of Higher Education. At stake for violators is nothing short of their federal funding, yet some schools seem determined "to educate, not register," according to Institute of Politics research director David King.

"The old mentality still lingers in half the colleges and universities that believe it's not their job," says Mr. King. "There's a question whether they're in the business of creating good citizens. But actually, it's the law."

Lagging behind in terms of registering students were the nation's private colleges and universities, according to the report, which affixed an "out of compliance" label to 44 percent of responding private institutions. On campus, "out of compliance" generally means students aren't finding voter registration forms either in their mailboxes or at a distribution center.

Some voices beg to differ. The Harvard survey "didn't capture the reality," according to David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. He said results were unreliable because the survey of 815 presidents took place during the vacation month of August.

Thirty-one percent of those surveyed responded. When the association did its own e-mail survey of member institutions last week, it found 95 percent of the 360 responding schools are conducting campus-wide campaigns to get voter registration materials to students.

"There is a very keen interest" in helping students register and vote, says Mr. Warren. If a school has failed to provide forms, he says, the problem may lie with state election officials, who don't always answer requests.

No matter who's to blame, students this year seem in no mood to miss out. The Harvard survey found that 1 out of every 3 campuses had organized rallies or protests. At Regis, political scientist David Smailes has been on campus through three prior presidential elections, but this year he observes something new: Students are calling him to find out how to vote.

They're students like Geraldine Abelard, a junior from Boston's Dorchester section, who says this year's election became personal when her fiancé's brother and a friend's husband were deployed to Iraq. But with homicide rates on the rise this year in Boston, she also wants to see attention shift to solving domestic problems.

"For me in my hometown, there's a lot of people getting killed," says Ms. Abelard. "I have greater concern for what's going on here than what's happening over there in Iraq."

Others say they're determined to stand up and be counted in what promises to be a close election. "There are so many people in our age bracket, we could determine the outcome," says Kathleen Ryan, a freshman at St. Joseph's University in Marion Station, Pa. "That's something I grew up listening to on MTV."

To accommodate this mood and encourage a civic practice, some campuses have made student voting a mission. At Regis, students get multiple opportunities this fall to register on their way to lunch, and the college provides shuttle buses to and from the polls on Election Day. Yet even on a campus where voting is encouraged, first-time voters feel confused.

"Most people here don't know where to vote," says Isobo Erekeosima, a freshman from New Haven, Conn. "I know in my town it's city hall, but here I'm not sure."

Nationwide, first-time voters face a minefield of potential snafus as a result of requirements added in recent years. For instance, a student who registers by mail but doesn't have a driver's license might be hard pressed to furnish the necessary photo identification.

Also, not all college towns make it easy for students to cast votes. Some residents don't love the idea of a group of 18- to 22-year-olds voting on local ordinances and so create deliberate barriers like disqualifying students who live in dorms and don't have street addresses.

What's more, first-time voters who register by mail in Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, and Tennessee must vote in person - no absentee ballots allowed. Since almost 40 percent of college students say they intend to vote absentee, such rules can affect college voters more than other groups.

Yet for all the bureaucratic hurdles, voter-registration activists say the biggest challenge to the youth vote might be the youths themselves.

After all, they say somewhat tongue-in-cheek, college students have other things to think about.

"They need a lot of reminders," says Noreen O'Connor, cofounder of collegevote.org. "When you're 19 and have a lot of things going on, you might not do something a month in advance."

To make the process more appealing, Justin Emery has this fall given away T-shirts, CDs, and buttons to about 1,000 students who registered through the Boston-area "campus invasion tour" of radio station 94.5, WJMN FM. But even after everyone has filled out the forms, he says he's not taking any chances.

"The form might get lost in the bottom of a backpack for a month, and then it's too late," says Mr. Emery. "So we just mail it in for them."

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