Turning around youth voter turnout

Katherine Taylor

Today is Election Day across the United States, and given that voter turnout was only 7.5 percent for a similar election in 2009 in Travis County, you probably haven’t voted today.

This statement perhaps comes as no surprise since the student population is notorious for its high rates of civic abdication — that is, low voter turnout.

But it doesn’t seem like this low level of civic participation among college students should hold true. With the wealth of resources available, it seems like students should have a much higher turnout in today’s elections. There is a voting site in the Flawn Academic Center, an extremely visible and highly visited area on campus. The West Mall is full of students exclaiming about the importance of voting. Voter registration forms are passed out both on campus and throughout the West Campus area. The College of Communication houses the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Education, which has a program geared toward “increasing electoral participation” among the undergraduate population at UT. And our location in the state’s capital and the plethora of politically motivated organizations on campus indicate we are a politically active campus.

So why don’t we vote? There are several barriers in our way. First, the registration process itself is confusing. When freshmen come to UT, most are eligible to vote for the first time. However, when filling out the voter registration form, it seems incorrect to write down your college dorm address that you have lived in for less than three months as your “residence address.” The forms are not targeted toward a population that often moves each and every year throughout college.

Plus, in an age of instant connection and online everything, students expect to be able to register to vote online; instead the form must be mailed in, which seems archaic in this digital age.

Moreover, how long does a student’s registration remain active? Must he or she re-register after moving to a new apartment? While there are lots of questions, there is an easy solution: Students only have to register once and can change their address at the polling site. While there’s a clear solution to these problems, students aren’t told about it.

Once registered, how do students determine where their precinct is? Fortunately, for the first time, the city of Austin is allowing constituents to vote at any voting location; citizens are no longer restricted to their precinct location. But while this hurdle has been removed, more have been added.

If the U.S. Department of Justice clears the recently passed voter ID law, out-of-state students will be forced to obtain a Travis County voter identification card because their out-of-state licenses will no longer be acceptable forms of identification. The city has also voted to keep municipal elections in the month of May, a time when college students are busy with finals.

Not only does the voting process unfairly inconvenience students, not enough attention is given to engaging the student population. There have been plenty of campaigns and slogans geared toward increasing student voter turnout, such as Rock the Vote, "Vote or Die!", "Get Out the Vote" and Hook the Vote. But why is there no “Explain the Vote” campaign?

There are two common arguments cited about why student interests are not catered to: Students don’t vote anyway, and citywide issues don’t affect the student population. Both are wrong. In the 2008 presidential election, youth voter turnout was between 49.3 and 54.5 percent and was a key factor in propelling President Barack Obama to the White House. One of the propositions on today’s ballot “would allow the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to issue bonds to fund low-interest student loans,” an issue clearly important to students.

These examples demonstrate that students will vote when they are engaged and that citywide issues greatly affect the student population. With these facts in mind, the student voice should be treated like an important one. The city of Austin, the University and the news organizations and candidates representing us should do everything in their power to make the voting process more student-friendly and transparent and to inform students on the issues affecting them.

Taylor is a Plan II and rhetoric and writing senior.