Students registered, but will they vote?
Politics engage at University of North Carolina at Greensboro
By Catherine Poley
Editor's Note: As part of our coverage of the 2004 election season, CNN.com is sending correspondents to the colleges where they studied to report on issues affecting today's young voters. In this edition, Catherine Poley returns to her alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
GREENSBORO, North Carolina (CNN) -- As evening falls, students crisscross the University of North Carolina at Greensboro campus showing the first signs of sweaters and winter coats.
A group of students runs out of the misty rain into a hot, crowded room below the cafeteria where the school's Sociology Club holds a political debate. The sign on the door has a picture of Uncle Sam and reads "We Want You to come and find where you stand."
It is standing room only as a panel of representatives from campus partisan organizations, such as the Coalition of Progressive Students and College Libertarians, heatedly debate key election issues such as same-sex marriage, health care and taxes.
Faced with many complex issues, some students are still weighing their options days before the election. Though a large number are registered to vote, it remains unclear what the student turnout will be on Election Day. (Special Report: America Votes 2004)
But Sociology Club President Stephanie Hodges said the debate turnout thrilled her. She said the club felt it was important to hold a political debate on unbiased territory.
"I see a lot of apathy in students," she says. "They are being told to go out and vote, but none of these people are making informed decisions. We thought it was important to have an event where students could hear the different platforms to be able to make an informed decision instead of just rushing out to the polls."
Her assertion that many students are apathetic might surprise someone walking through campus. Politics is the topic of conversation for most students as the election draws closer.
Students came out en masse to voter registration drives held by the university and student groups. Pride, a organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students, was one of the groups registering voters.
"We had a representative from the Democratic National Convention come in and talk about how important it is to vote," said Pride President Haley Johnson, "and how important it is for the college demographic -- especially our group -- how important it is to get out and vote. And we had voter registration forms for everybody."
George Gilbert, elections director for Guilford County, said there is no way of knowing how many students have registered. "We don't collect information on professions," Gilbert said. "So we could not tell you how many students are registered. ... I can tell you that most of the registrants from the precinct surrounding UNCG campus are students."
However, Pride Vice President Joseph Arrington said some students were declining to register toward the end of the drives. "It was not so much a question that people were refusing because of not wanting to register, but a question of them already having registered saying, 'I'm already registered. Leave me alone,' " he said.
Several students said they have made up their minds. However, many said they are undecided.
Student Jessica Moss, 22, is among those who remain unsure. "I need to decide. There are things that I like and dislike about both candidates," Moss said. "So I am still trying to weigh in on my decision."
In 2003, the university joined the American Democracy Project, a national initiative to engage students in civic life, get them registered to vote and interested in the election.
"We are now working on the sort of last leg of this election cycle, which is 'get out the vote,' " said Ben Ramsey, associate professor of religious studies, who chairs the school's program. "We have everybody registered, but whether or not they're actually going to get out there and vote is another issue. And that's really where our focus is now."
The American Democracy Project has sponsored events, including discussion forums on key issues and "debate watches" for two of the presidential debates. Students were invited to watch the debates as a group and sound off on what they thought of the candidates' performances.
The Elliot University Center is the center of campus student life.
Student Government President Dara Edelman said students seemed to take watching the debates seriously. "It was very interesting to find out that a lot of these students didn't come for extra class credit but were coming because they wanted to be more educated for their votes on November 2," Edelman said.
In an election expected to be close, who goes to the polls could make all the difference.
"There are so few undecided voters that it's really going to come down to new registrations," said Joe Killian, managing editor of the school paper The Carolinian, "On this campus, I've really seen people scurrying to get those people. And then to get them involved. OK, you're registered to vote. Now let's make sure you're an informed voter."
Political science professor Charles L. Prysby said student opinion may not be accurately represented by national polls.
"My sense is that students are going to be less likely to be reached by national polls," Prysby said. "And probably a lot of them don't even have a landline phone, and they're not going to be reached if they only have a cell phone. I wonder if they are less well-represented in the national polls, and if so ... if they turn out in substantially more numbers this year, if that will have any effect on the accuracy of the polls."