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Iowa caucus brings attention to student voters

Kate Gales | Monday, January 19, 2004

Notre Dame students are voicing strong political opinions as the 2004 campaign opens in Iowa today, reflecting an unusual contingent in an era when a high number of college students and their peers are not registered to vote.According to the Federal Election Commission, 18- to 24-year-olds have been significantly under-represented in presidential elections. However, many Notre Dame students are registered to vote and are actively following the 2004 campaign. The first caucus takes place in Iowa today, where the College Democrats are currently working on behalf of Sen. John Edwards.Casey Fitzmaurice, president of the College Democrats, organized the trip to Iowa to support Edwards in association with Nick Smith from Purdue.”There’s a group of 34 of us from Indiana,” Fitzmaurice said Sunday. “We’re going door-to-door campaigning, handing out literature and talking to [caucus voters] about why John Edwards should be the next president.”Fitzmaurice said that interest in participating in the caucus came from a variety of campus sources. “There was a huge response from students at Notre Dame – the College Democrats, political science students, John Edwards fans and people who just wanted to see the caucus,” she said.”[The caucus] is going to be exciting, anything could happen,” she added. “The Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest paper, is calling it a four-way dead heat between [John] Kerry, [Richard] Gephardt and [Howard] Dean.”For Notre Dame students who are Iowa natives, involvement in the caucus can also include casting a vote.”I’m a registered Republican,” said Christopher Disbro, a freshman from Waukee, Iowa. “I did my own research, decided what I liked and what I didn’t, and registered accordingly. It was an independent decision. I haven’t gone to [the Iowa caucus] lately, but living in an important area has made me more politically aware.”Freshman Steve Cartwright pointed out the caucus’s vital role in foreshadowing the campaign’s coming months. “It’s actually really important to support a strong candidate in Iowa, as the caucus tends to set the tone for the entire election,” Cartwright said. “If a strong front-runner emerges, the country’s undecided voters tend to lean in his or her direction.” Cartwright is in the process of registering to vote via the non-profit Rock the Vote! initiative. “I should be a card-carrying Democrat by the time the 2004 presidential election rolls around,” he said. “With any luck, I’ll be voting in the Pennsylvania primary via absentee ballot this April.” Rock the Vote! is one of many programs in place to register young voters. “I went to renew my driver’s license when I turned 21, and they asked me if I wanted to register [to vote],” said junior Chris Henschen. “I never really made an effort to do it. I’m not following anyone yet, but I’ll probably start watching the election this summer.”For freshman Ryan Iafigliola, the registration process was relatively simple, but actually voting has proven more difficult. “They came to my high school, set up a both, and I registered,” said Ohio native Iafigliola. “It’s tricky to vote [while in college] because I don’t live at home and have to request an absentee ballot.” Freshman Clare Charbonnet also registered at her high school when her government teacher passed out registration forms. “[My teacher] said that anyone who didn’t vote didn’t have the right to complain about the government – and I complain a lot,” Charbonnet said. Despite these students’ efforts, the Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement (PACE), affiliated with Salisbury University, reports that on the average, the voter’s registration level of college students is 16 percent lower than that of the total voting age population. In 1972, the 26th Amendment granted suffrage to 18- to 24- year-olds for the first time. However, in recent years the media has emphasized a decrease in social activism among young adults. Even with this negative stereotype, Notre Dame students remain involved in the political process. Fitzmaurice and the College Democrats, in association with other organizations on campus, are planning a Rock the Vote! initiative on campus later this semester.”I am registered to vote [because] I want to have a say in the political system, even though sometimes the most votes doesn’t equal the winner,” said sophomore Matt Frey. “I am not following a candidate as of now, but I do think some of the preliminary Democrats are more qualified than the others.”Senior Jessica Leibowitz remembers the 2000 election as a big event on campus. “My friends and I really cared about the election, but it really depended on where you were from, what kind of family you were from, and who your friends were,” she said. “We watched the debates, which were really important, and left the TV on all night, going to bed thinking Gore had won.” Leibowitz, who voted by absentee ballot, said she thinks television exposure and campus voting drives also contributed to the 2000 election’s publicity.This year, some potential voters remain unsure if they will participate. “I’m not registered to vote – I didn’t turn 18 until I got here,” freshman Carolyn White said. “I really don’t know if I’m going to vote yet, and if I do, it will not be for Bush. I think the Notre Dame student body election is more important at present, but whoever gets elected as the U.S. president will still be in office when we graduate, and his [or her] presidency will greatly shape the economy and job market.”White said that campaign platforms in 2004 will greatly affect the lives of Notre Dame students as they look forward to the future. “At the national level, students should be interested in candidates who support increased federal aid to college students, take gutsy positions on protecting civil rights, and address the problems that we saw in high school and that our children will see – like aggressive positions on drug and gun control,” Cartwright said.