Student leaders working to build election enthusiasm

Midterm elections are just weeks away, and without a presidential campaign in the mix, it’s hard to get many people out to vote. But on college campuses across the state, student leaders are working to build enthusiasm among their peers.

“It’s pretty easy to get kids excited about campaigning, advertising and registering once they realize how the issues affect them,” says Alex Mac Levin, chairman of the Connecticut Union of College Republicans.

This political season hasn’t inspired nearly the same frenzied level of canvassing, celebrity appearances or ubiquitous slogans as the 2008 race, when between 22 and 24 million people ages 18-29 voted in the second largest youth voter turnout in American history.

But student leaders have found that their classmates are easy to engage in the midterm elections process when given the information and convinced to think locally.

“Even though the midterms aren’t necessarily exciting on their own, we’re able to show why these elections matter, especially for Connecticut,” says Ben Stango, president of the Yale College Democrats. “With the budget, the deficit, and the achievement gap, Connecticut is in a pretty terrible place right now.”

Student leaders are working hard to stir up participation. And they’re seeing results. Registrars of voters in both Mansfield and Middletown (where UConn and Wesleyan have main campuses) say that though they don’t keep official tallies, college students are turning up to register this year in about the same numbers as in 2008.

Much credit is due to student political organizations. They coordinate voter registration, write op-eds, outline the issues and lobby. Umbrella groups the College Democrats of Connecticut and Connecticut Union of College Republicans coordinate efforts across campuses. while local chapters run campaigns, organize phone banks and host candidates.

At a Yale Democrats “Election Kick-Off” rally last month, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, and Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal reminded a crowd of more than 100 students how important it was for them to stay involved and enthused.  “You’re the heart and soul of what we do, said DeLauro. “You’ve been invigorating our party for decades.”

The event was loud and lively, standing room only, each mention of a hot button issue met with cheers and clapping. It was a surprising view of a demographic sometimes accused of political apathy in election years without the Presidential seat at the top of the ticket.

And that energy can influence the political process. As of this year, there were more than 190,000 college students enrolled in public and private institutions in the state, according to the Connecticut Department of Higher Education. In any given district, a high student turnout at the polls could realistically shift the outcome of a contest as it did for Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, in 2006. Courtney won his seat by 83 votes in a district when UConn students turned out in high numbers to vote.

“The College Democrats at UConn put Joe Courtney into office,” DeLauro said at the Yale rally. And students know it.

“The fact is that had we stepped up and gotten a lot more fired up about the election, things could’ve gone a lot different,” says Joe Gasser, president of the UConn College Republicans.

The biggest challenge for organizers is to get students invested in local issues, rather than what’s going on back home.

“It’s important that students register where they live,” says Ryan Smith, of the Wesleyan Democrats. “They can make personal connections with the candidates and get involved in local issues.”

“Issues are the best way to galvanize students who aren’t necessarily politically engaged,” says Stango. “Building excitement for the midterms is a struggle.”

He says that though most students are focused on the national level, they can be convinced to think locally.

Yale Democrats have gotten students to organize around education reform, immigration issues and homelessness in New Haven, for example, encouraging local investment.

On the Wesleyan campus, the environment is a huge driving factor. “Single issues really mobilize students,” says Wesleyan student Corey Guilmette of Democracy Matters, a group working to encourage clean elections and democratic participation. “Elections are very much secondary to whatever cause they might be interested in.”

Getting students involved in the midterms is also all about the economy for the UConn Republicans, says Gasser. “It’s the biggest thing. Whether politically active or not, students are frustrated because they haven’t seen any progress.”

And in the end, these leaders say, even students disenchanted with politics can be converted.

“Lots of students are feeling that politics is getting old,” says Smith. “But if you speak to someone you can always figure out what makes them mad, what issue gets them to take action.”