Op-Ed

The young and the voteless

TNS

Michael Malanga is an impressive young man.

He’s an accounting major at USF, where he’s student body vice president. He’s politically aware and registered to vote, unlike many of his Tampa classmates.

“Go Bulls!”

People at USF get that.

“Go vote!”

Not so easy.

That’s why Malanga stood alongside Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, at recent events to spur more college students to register to vote in Florida, the state that will again be a pivotal battleground in the 2016 race for the White House.

What brought all three of them together recently was National Voter Registration Day, probably not a special date on the calendar for most college students.

But as Castor suggests, it should be.

A national study claims that fewer young people (19.9 percent of those ages 18 to 29) voted in the 2014 election than at any time in the past 40 years.

“That’s dismal,” said Castor, whose mother, Betty, is a former USF president. “Yet, the young people I meet are engaged and informed.”

She thinks young people are turned off by the caustic tone of national political dialogue, which these days seems more caustic than ever.

The study group, the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, offered several possible theories for the trend, such as too few competitive elections and the strategy of microtargeting likely and swing voters, ignoring young people who are less likely to vote.

USF has political activism, with “Bulls for Bernie” (Sanders) and “Bulls for Hillary.”

The campus has played a memorable role in Florida politics as the scene of some great Florida political debates, including the final faceoff between Rick Scott and Alex Sink in the 2010 race for governor, and between Mel Martinez and Betty Castor in a 2004 U.S. Senate race.

Rep. Castor and student leader Malanga said voter turnout at USF would be higher if the county would add an early-voting site on campus. (The nearest early-voting site is 2½ miles away in Temple Terrace, but a lot of students don’t own cars.)

But elections chief Latimer has run the numbers and said they don’t justify it. Not only are there far fewer USF students registered compared to older age groups, but USF’s parking problems would make it a dubious early-voting destination.

“You’re not going to get people to pay six bucks to go vote,” he said.

The campus is in Precinct 353, which has 525 active voters and 1,139 voters classified as inactive. That means they haven’t voted in recent elections and can legally be removed from the rolls.

Even student body leader Malanga is not a Florida voter. He votes absentee back in his hometown of Fairfield, N.J.

“For me, honestly, there was confusion,” Malanga said. “I didn’t realize I could register here.”

That suggests the need for more voter outreach by Hillsborough leaders, even though Latimer holds voter-registration efforts on a regular basis and uses social media to contact voters.

Latimer suggests the most effective way to reach college students about civics is through other college students.

“They listen to their peers a lot more than they listen to us,” he said.

© 2015 Tampa Bay Times

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