A year after historic election, students stay involved in politics

November 3, 2009 By Stacy Forster

A year ago, Crystal Lee recalls running around Madison in a John McCain T-shirt, reminding people to vote and handing out campaign door hangers.

Meanwhile, Molly Rivera was among the hundreds of University of Wisconsin–Madison students volunteering in the State Street campaign office for Barack Obama, knocking on doors and making phone calls to get out the vote.

“On election day, it was 12 straight hours of work,” says Rivera, a junior and now chairwoman of the UW–Madison College Democrats.

“Whether it’s seeing their car insurance rates go up, or rises in tuition … they’re starting to question how that works and getting involved in campaigns and at the state Capitol.”

Kristen Wall, UW–Madison senior and vice chairwoman of the Wisconsin Federation of College Republicans

It’s hard to match the energy of election day — and the weeks leading up to the end of a campaign — but one year after young voters like Lee and Rivera surged to the polls, the historic 2008 campaign has sparked an ongoing interest in politics among students.

Still, the number of students getting involved isn’t as high as it was in 2008, and campus political leaders say their biggest challenge is motivating students to debate and advocate for issues.

“You have more impact on foot, on the ground,” says Lee, a senior and chairwoman of the UW–Madison College Republicans. “It’s harder to get people to come and listen to someone talk.”

Doing that involves adding some elements of fun, they say.

“Political involvement isn’t dead just because it isn’t an election year,” says Sean Becker, a sophomore who coordinates monthly “speed debating” nights at the Memorial Union.

On the anniversary of his election Wednesday, Obama will be in Madison for a visit to a local school and a talk about education.

The 2008 results represented a high-water mark for participation by young voters. More than 22 million people under age 30 cast ballots in 2008, making turnout among young voters in 2008 one of the highest ever recorded, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement. That was 2 million more votes than the nation’s youngest voters cast in 2004, making them the age group with the greatest increase in turnout last year.

In Wisconsin, turnout among voters under age 30 was 57.5 percent, compared with nearly 75 percent of adults over age 30.

Younger voters engage in issues in different ways than older adults, talking about issues on Facebook and Twitter, and getting Jon Stewart’s take on political events, says UW–Madison political science professor Katherine Cramer Walsh. They’ve also come of age in an era marked by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, high partisanship and severe economic downturn, Walsh says.

“It can turn people off, but it can also be very engaging. For the most part, it definitely has created interest,” Walsh says. “It’s been a time when public affairs has been a hot topic…there’s always been something in the news.”

Much of the interest among young people in last year’s election was launched first on energy from the Obama campaign, which was a special draw to young voters, and then driven by candidates’ use of social networking, student leaders on both sides of the political aisle say.

Wisconsin’s Election Day registration law also makes it easy for the highly transient student population to vote.

A year later, Obama stickers still adorn students’ water bottles and coffee mugs, Walsh says. But leaders of the College Democrats and College Republicans report that about 30 to 50 members turn up for regular meetings, and each has an e-mail list with thousands of students who want to receive updates on activities.

Rivera says she thinks students are just as interested in politics and President Obama as they were last year, but “the difference is when a student signs up to work on a campaign, they can really see the results of their work.”

Kristen Wall, a senior and vice chairwoman of the Wisconsin Federation of College Republicans, says students are starting to see how actions by lawmakers, especially at the state level, can affect their lives.

“Whether it’s seeing their car insurance rates go up, or rises in tuition … they’re starting to question how that works and getting involved in campaigns and at the state Capitol,” Wall says.

This fall, health care is the hot topic among students.

Last month, the College Republicans hosted a Halloween party where members ate candy and wrote letters to their congressional representatives arguing for a more measured approach to health care reform than is being proposed by Democratic leaders, Lee says.

Their counterparts in the College Democrats sponsored a health care action week with events that ranged from a panel of experts discussing reform to a viewing of the Michael Moore movie, “Sicko,” says Jamie Stark, a sophomore from Green Bay and vice chairman of the College Democrats.

At the Union’s speed debating nights, organizers write questions about a certain topic — say, foreign policy — and put them in cups on tables. A group of about five or six people sits down at a table to choose a slip and debate that question for about 15 minutes, Becker says. When time is up, people switch to a new table with people they haven’t debated yet.

“It’s a mix of a social fun thing and a way that people can really address some of these issues,” he says. “People are educated and know about these things, but sometimes they don’t have the forum to speak their minds.”

Campus political activity isn’t limited to the two major parties. Young Americans for Liberty is a spinoff of the 2008 presidential campaign of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who built a network of support from young voters during last year’s primaries.

That network has morphed into about 150 chapters of the Young Americans for Liberty, says Shawn Kuhn, a junior and director of public relations for Young Americans for Liberty. About 30 UW–Madison students meet regularly to talk about their push for fiscal conservatism, and the group hosted a protest over the national debt on Library Mall last month, he says.

Next year’s midterm elections loom, and campus political leaders are starting to put together the framework for students to work on campaigns next year.

Some candidates are already courting student voters. Republican Scott Walker, the Milwaukee County executive running for governor, will visit campus Tuesday, and his opponent, former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, is taking steps to form a group of supporters on campus, Lee says. College Democrats are preparing to help U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a Madison Democrat, defend her seat.

“People realize were only a year out from the election cycle and it’s time to get involved,” Wall says.

Tags: student life