Richard Stockton College freshman Emily Kosch, 18, of Brick Township in Ocean County, has registered to vote but knows she won’t make it home for the Nov. 6 election.
“I live on campus,” she said Tuesday as she filled out an application in the Campus Center to receive a mail-in ballot.
Students in the Political Engagement Project at Stockton have begun actively promoting the upcoming election, setting up tables to register students to vote or apply for a mail-in ballot. Atlantic Cape Community College has hosted voter registration tables and several college campuses, including Stockton, have planned special events for “National Voter Registration Day” on Sept. 25.
But the youth vote, while significant in numbers, can be difficult to engage.
An estimated 1.2 million young people ages 18 to 29 are eligible to vote in New Jersey, according to U.S. Census data compiled by the Center for Information and Research on Civil Leaning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, at Tufts University. But getting them to the polls can be a challenge, especially those who are not in college where support systems will guide them through the process.
“There is an understanding gap,” said Elizabeth Matto, director of the Youth Political Participation Program at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “The system seems inaccessible to them.”
But Matto said their sheer numbers make young people a potentially powerful political force.
“It is a huge generation, and they have a stake in this,” she said. “Look at student loan debt. It’s out of control.”
That’s the point student workers at Stockton were making as they stopped students heading to the food court to ask them if they were registered to vote.
“There is a real disconnect from politics on campus,” said Justin Frankel of Galloway Township, chairman of the Stockton Student Senate Legislative Policy and Government Affairs Committee. “(Students) are not informed on how the election impacts them, and we are trying to inform them about issues like tuition assistance, student loan rates and financial aid.”
Barack Obama took the youth vote by a wide margin in 2008 presidential election, getting 66 percent of that vote nationally and in New Jersey. About 53 percent of registered voters ages 18 to 29 in the state voted. In April, the president went on a college campus tour to promote legislation to keep interest rates on student loans from doubling in July. Republican challenger Mitt Romney also supported that legislation.
New Jersey students have a local reason to vote this year, but most don’t know about the $750 million state bond referendum for college construction projects.
Unemployment and the economy are also major issues for young voters, and a nonprofit group called Generation Opportunity has hammered on that issue, noting that the national unemployment rate for 18- to 29-year-olds in August was almost 13 percent. A survey commissioned by the group in July found 76 percent of so-called Millennials plan to vote in the presidential election, but only 38 percent believe today’s political leaders reflect the interests of young Americans.
Some students at Stockton, mostly political science majors, are active in the election process but they admit the overall excitement isn’t as great as it was in 2008. Mico Lucide, 21, of Somers Point, and Michael Assad, 25, of Absecon, have both been active in campaigns themselves but don’t see the same enthusiasm campus wide.
“The mood is a lot more somber,” Assad said. “There is a lot of concern about our future.”
Assad said he believes candidates have not been effective in explaining their message to young people.
Stockton Student Senate President A.J. Vervoort of Eatontown, Monmouth County, said students are interested in education, environmental and social issues, but they don’t know where the candidates stand on those issues. .
“Students will say, ‘I don’t know who to vote for,’” Vervoort said. The Senate is planning events such as debate parties to spur student interest.
Matto said another huge issue for students is residency and where they can vote. Many students initially register using their parents’ home address, but then can’t make it home on Election Day. Diana Strelczyk, of the Stockton Office of Service Learning, has been assisting with voter registration and encourages students to get a mail-in ballot.
“Luckily most of our students are from New Jersey, so it’s easy to get them registered,” she said.
Students can register using their local or college campus address, but Matto said that typically changes every year, so students would have to file a change of address each year they voted, and probably vote at a different polling place. Since young people typically move around a lot early in their careers, it can be easy to get lost in the system.
Stockton junior Chelsea Horner, 20, is from Butler in Morris County, but is living in Brigantine this academic year. This will be her first presidential election, and she registered using her Butler home address and may also apply for a mail-in ballot.
“It is confusing to know what to do,” she said. She said she has been “sort of” following the campaign, and gets e-mail updates from the Obama campaign, which seems to be making better use of technology and social media than the Romney campaign. Horner said student loan rates and the economy are her primary concerns.
“I’m worried about the job market after we’ve paid all this money (for college),” Horner said. “The economy will hit us the hardest.”
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