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Students gear up to drive the Yale vote home

In the final push towards Election Day, Yalies show off the vast array of their political colors.

By Sara Aviel

Samantha Jay, BK '04, a member of the Yale College Democrats, has never spent a weekend at Yale. Ever since she's arrived here, she's used her Saturdays and Sundays to drive with the Dems to towns across Connecticut. She walks door to door distributing campaign literature and talking to people about the importance of voting.

During the week, she concentrates her efforts on Yalies, going from room to room with registration forms so that students can sign up to vote in Connecticut. She's succeeded in engaging many of them. However, she has met with some opposition. In one of her rounds, a student refused to speak to her. "He just said, `the system is corrupt. I don't want to be a part of it.' Then he slammed the door in my face," she explained.

Jay and the angry student represent the two ends of the spectrum of political involvement on campus. Behind the campaign messages on bulletin boards and the banners hanging from dorm room windows is a student body of the active, the aware—and the apathetic.

Spreading activism

"This is it. The most important nine days of the next four years," Lex Paulson, ES '02, head of the Yale College Democrats, wrote in an e-mail to his group's list on Sun., Oct. 29. He appealed to everyone to volunteer their services for the final push toward Election Day—to remind people to vote, to leaflet, to help in any way they can.

An hour after Paulson sent the message out, 31 people responded. By the end of the day, the Dems had over 70 volunteers. The Dems' wide-ranging activities to get out the vote and inform Yale students are reaching a fever pitch in these final days. On Tues., Nov. 7 they will be calling students—and in the case of Wards 7 and 22, which include Davenport, Pierson, Morse, and Stiles—driving students to their polling places. The group has also taken an interest outside of Yale, campaigning in districts with tight races across the state.

The Yale College Republicans have done their share of campaigning as well. However, they have resigned themselves to the liberal slant among students and have concentrated more of their efforts outside of campus. "Students tend to be very liberal and democratic, so it's a waste of our time," Howard Clark, BK '01, who heads Yale Students for Bush, said. Instead, they have woken up at 4:30 a.m. to talk to commuters at train stations and have taken vans to debates in Boston.

Besides involvement through the two traditional parties, student efforts in this election have been defined by a comprehensive effort to get out the vote. Initiatives such as Stand Up and Vote have the general aim of registering students in New Haven, while other groups are seeing the election as a way of advancing specific issues. Green Corps is promoting the campaigns of environmentally friendly legislators. The Reproductive Rights Action League of Yale (RALY) has concentrated on getting out the message to vote pro-choice. "The election spurred the creation of this group," Caroline Barber, DC '02, who started RALY, said. "It's a crucial year for gaining momentum for a pro-choice cause." The involvement of a strong third-party candidate has also spurred involvement. Despite the controversy surrounding Nader's candidacy, he is bringing disillusioned students into the system. Sarah Wolf, TD '02, one of the coordinators of the Campus Coalition for Nader, said, "If it were not for Nader, I am pretty sure I wouldn't be voting."

Shades of apathy

Though the success of these mobilization efforts is encouraging, it is telling that they needed to exist in the first place. Of the close to 750 new registered students, as few as 70 registered independently of efforts of the various politcal groups. It seems students will participate if someone comes to their door with all the paperwork—otherwise, many would probably let voting fall by the wayside. "People get so busy with their everyday lives, they forget there are things beyond that," Michelle Mayorga, JE '03, a Stand Up and Vote volunteer, said. Indeed, while many of the volunteers expressed immense satisfaction at being responsible for the enfranchisement of their peers, others were disappointed in their seeming lack of concern. For Jay, this response was almost worse than having the door slammed in her face. "Their indifference is what's crushing," she said.

Yale students are not exceptions to national trends. College age citizens are notoriously the least likely to vote—according to the U.S. Census Bureau, less than 17 percent of eligible voters ages 18-24 voted in the congressional elections of 1998, and only 32.4 percent of the group turned out for the 1996 presidential elections. This marked the lowest point in a downward trend since 1964.

Ward 1 Alder Julio Gonzalez, CC '99, acknowledged a growing disconnect between young people and electoral politics. "I think the major political parties have not tried to mobilize youth. It is a self-perpetuating cycle because the less attention [that is] paid to youth, the less they get involved." Clark pointed to reasons why students can be apathetic towards the national campaigns. "Many of the issues do not directly affect students or they don't feel it affects them," he said.

State Senator Toni Harp, who represents the 10th district, which includes New Haven and West Haven, also warned against this sentiment. In a speech to the Dems on Mon., Oct. 30, she explained why issues like prescription drugs and Social Security are important for youth. "Guess who's going to be the major taxpayer when the system needs to be fixed? You have the most vested interest in what's at stake."

Yale students also take a unique twist of apathy in the form of a detached intellectualism. They are engaged in the ideas surrounding this election, but are not active participants. "It is such a Yale thing to do to follow the intellectual debate but not actually do anything," Rob Smuts, SM '01, chair of Stand Up and Vote and Vice President of the Yale College Democrats, said. "For instance, they discuss why voter participation is declining but [do] not actually go out and register people to vote. It's important to understand the intellectual reasons, but it's more important to do something about it."

Moving towards awareness

Perhaps the most important election results are already in. When activists succeeded in doubling the number of registered undergraduates from 750 to about 1,520, they not only enfranchised them as young people, but as New Haven residents as well. In a city with record-low voter registration, this is a significant step in the right direction. Indeed, all the efforts to engage students can be seen as part of a larger plan to get all New Haven residents involved in the political process. Different organizations including Stand Up and Vote, Register for Your Future, unions and the NAACP have registered between 4,000 and 5,000 new voters, a 10 percent increase from the just under 50,000 voters already registered. "The gain is amazing. And, most of the people who are doing voter registration and are responsible for it are young people—both New Haven residents and Yalies. Even in the face of all of this criticism from the media, there are young people who are enthused and are trying to put people back into politics," Smuts, who also serves as assistant registrar of New Haven, said.

As a significant part of New Haven's voting age population, students' level of participation influences the level of participation of the city as a whole. When students decide to vote by absentee ballot instead of voting in New Haven, they affect voter turnout. "We need to stop thinking of ourselves as outsiders," Gonzalez said. He said that a high turnout of voters in New Haven would send a strong message of political strength. "A Yale vote is just as good as any other in sending the message to Hartford or Washington," he said. Amil Armmand, field coordinator for Lieberman's Senate campaign, also emphasized that students should forge an identity as New Haven residents. "Students spend nine months out of the year living here. They should get to know the city, whether it be by getting more involved in politics or not," he said.

Public servants and students activists hope that participating in these national elections will serve as a turning point for students to be more involved in all levels of government. Gonzalez summarized the election efforts this fall by saying, "We have moved from lamenting how aloof and apathetic our peers are to trying to organize them and make them into more participatory citizens. The next challenge we will face is how to educate them in the upcoming politics of New Haven." Paulson shared Gonzalez's sentiments. "People who only care about the president's race are missing the big picture. It's a battle to make our voices heard in the community and in the state," he said. "On November 8, we'll know how well we've done that. November 7 is, in the end, just another phase in what we have to do."

Photos by David Gest.

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