Two polls this month from the John F. Kennedy School of Government show that a sizeable minority of universities are failing their obligation to help register collegiate voters and, despite that, young voter interest in the 2004 election is higher than four years ago.
The polls, by the Institute of Politics and the Vanishing Voter Project, come as the election enters its critical final weeks and as other external polls paint a conflicting picture – some show the race extremely close while others show President George Bush with a commanding lead over Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry.
Whatever the candidates’ status with voters, the race appears to have caught people’s attention. A telephone survey of 1,018 people by the Vanishing Voter Project conducted Sept. 8 to 12 showed that interest is substantially higher than in the 2000 election, when President Bush defeated then-Vice President Al Gore.
The Vanishing Voter survey showed that half of young adults 30 or under had a conversation within the past day about the election, compared with 25 percent during a similar survey at the same point in the 2000 campaign.
The Vanishing Voter survey showed that the war in Iraq remains the election’s hottest issue, with 43 percent of all voters choosing Iraq over the economy as the issue “of greater concern.” Thirty-seven percent said the economy was of greater concern.
The survey indicated that those concerned about Iraq were not only more numerous, but also more likely to be engaged in the campaign’s progress. Seventy-five percent of those who responded that Iraq was their highest concern said they were paying close attention the campaign, versus 65 percent of those who had listed the economy as most important.
The increased interest of young voters in this year’s campaign ends a multidecade trend that saw young voters turn out in lower numbers since the 1972 general election, when nearly 50 percent turned out. In 2000, roughly 30 percent of young voters went to the polls.
The second survey, by the Institute of Politics, helps illustrate election-related exposure and activities among young voters, at least on college campuses. The survey, released Sept. 13, shows that eight in 10 college campuses hosted political speakers on campus last semester, while seven in 10 hosted voter registration drives, and more than one-third had a protest or rally on campus.
The survey, conducted in partnership with The Chronicle of Higher Education, polled 815 university presidents and provosts, eliciting 249 responses.
According to IOP Research Director David King, a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School, the survey also showed that despite the activity on campus, most colleges and universities are not fulfilling their obligations under federal law to promote voter registration activities on campus.
The requirements, passed in the 1998 Higher Education Act, require that colleges and universities request a sufficient number of voter registration forms for the entire campus 120 days before an election’s registration deadline and requires those forms to be distributed to each student.
Just 17 percent of schools met the letter of the law, but King said a much larger number, about two-thirds, met the law’s spirit by holding significant voter registration activities on campus.
“One thing that was surprising was that so many colleges and universities were unaware of the federal regulations in this area,” King said.
King said it is essential that colleges and universities fulfill the federal requirements because, with a two-generation decline in civic participation by students and parents, and with the decline in teaching civic education in schools, colleges are the last place young people can get an education about their responsibilities as citizens.
“[Colleges and universities] are an important backstop for the civic engagement of young people,” King said.