Political scientists: Students, although less likely to, should vote

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- With the 2012 presidential election day finally here, college students remain less likely to vote than older voters. Two Penn State political science professors explain why students are less likely to engage in civic participation and why they should get involved.

Associate Professor of Public Policy Matthew Woessner argues that the typical voter is older, educated, interested in politics and usually has a family. “Most college students don’t identify with those qualifications,” Woessner said. “They don’t see government as being particularly important in their lives.”

Statistics from the Fair Elections Legal Network's Campus Vote Project show that more than 25 percent of college students didn’t register to vote because they don’t know where or how to do so. The research of Robert Speel, associate professor of political science at Penn State Behrend, the Erie College, corroborates that finding. “Many students prefer to register to vote at their family address where they lived before leaving for college because they feel more connected to that community than to their campus area,” Speel said. “But voting by absentee ballot in Pennsylvania involves meeting several deadlines and using regular mail to submit both an application and a ballot, and many students miss the deadline dates or are unaware of the procedures involved.”

Speel suggests that it may be easier for students simply to register at their campus address.

“Young adults of college age have the lowest voter turnout by far of any age group in the United States,” Speel said. While the numbers of civically active young adults are low in presidential elections, it's even worse for other elections.

“The low turnout in non-presidential elections demonstrates a weak understanding of the American political system,” Speel added. “Too many young adults perceive American politics as revolving around the president, when most decisions are actually made by the members of Congress and by state and local officials who are elected in separate elections.”

However, most students are unaware of the impact of their vote, believing that their voice doesn’t matter and nothing will ever change, all rooted in a misunderstanding of how American society works. Speel believes that those who do take action will see results.

“Those who do get involved and participate are more likely to get what they want out of life than those who don't," he said, "and if a system needs fixing, the solution is not to ignore the problem, but to participate in efforts to improve the situation, such as voting.”

Both professors emphasize the importance for students to take interest, gain knowledge and become aware. “Students can make positive influence if they do their research and vote with an informed mind,” Woessner said.

This is not to say all college students are apathetic; on the contrary, some of them are quite involved and interested. Penn State has various clubs for those interested in American politics, including College Democrats, College Independents, College Libertarians, College Republicans, Students for Barack Obama and Young Americans for Freedom.

Anthony Christina, senior majoring in history from outside of Philadelphia, believes it’s important to be civically engaged. “Our founders entrusted the success of our experiment in democracy to an electorate that would be participatory,” he said.

Like both Professors Woessner and Speel, Christina suggests fellow students can become more involved by readily following the news, staying up-to-date with current events, picking an issue they believe in and supporting it actively.

To see more statistics about college voters, visit http://www.campusvoteproject.org/statistics.

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Last Updated November 06, 2012