By CHRISTOPHER WEAVER
WASHINGTON (Sept. 24, 2008)—House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, told young voters Wednesday that "democracy isn't someone else's responsibility," in backing a plan for universities to offer voter registration when students sign up for class.
Hoyer joined Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, who made a surprise appearance, and other House Democrats to back the election law proposal.
But convincing students to register doesn't always mean they'll vote.
"On one hand, we're saying come off the sidelines and take part in the political process," said Van Hollen.
On the other, he said, state election laws create barriers for students. Out-of-reach residency requirements and torrents of misinformation, including the incorrect suggestion that parents can't count children registered out of state as dependents for tax purposes, are barriers.
"We've seen a concerted effort to keep young people out of the polls," he said.
Priorities for this election, said student voting activists, include making sure election officials are prepared for record youth turnouts, freeing students from course requirements on Election Day and educating those who don't feel well-informed enough to vote.
In the long term, the Congress members and activists say the new law—which would have universities take over get-out-the-vote efforts of larger nonprofit organizations—will help even more students get to the polls.
The new student voting act, which will be heard in committee Thursday, would also make universities registration places for all citizens, much like Motor Vehicle Administration offices.
Easy access to registration, and more frequent exposure to voting issues would help ensure that all 44 million eligible youth voters are able to cast ballots in future elections, said Matthew Segal, the executive director of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment.
However, "the story that's breaking today is whether the hundreds of thousands of students who want to vote this fall will be able to," he said. He acknowledged the "bipartisan" bill won't make difference this year.
Republican supporters of the legislation were not to be found at Wednesday's event, and when asked where they were Michele Jawando, legislative council to the People for the American Way Foundation, said, "Can I plead the fifth?"
The strong Democratic support for the measure adds up in light of the overwhelming advantage Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., enjoys among voters between ages 17 and 22. According to a poll ending Sept. 17 by Rock the Vote, a youth voting organization, Obama leads among that group by 34 percentage points.
And local data, analyzed by political scientists at the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College, shows that 105,022 voters who registered in Maryland in 2008 chose the Democratic Party, while only 37,852 chose the GOP. Young people make up the biggest bloc of the new registrants.
"It's off the charts—not literally—but between 2004 and now we have doubled the registration among younger voters," said Michael Cain, center director.
But the bill does have a Republican sponsor, Rep. Steven LaTourette of Ohio, who wasn't available for Wednesday's event.
When a similar piece of legislation appeared before the Maryland General Assembly earlier this year, it had bipartisan support, but it was unsuccessful because it was introduced late in the session, said state Sen. Jim Rosapepe, D-Prince George's.
Because it was introduced in a year when the senators weren't vying for their seats, "nobody felt a rush at that time—except for me—but we'll take it up seriously in 2009," he said.
While Maryland election rules are fairly inclusive for students, many swing states, such as Virginia, make voting difficult for academic transplants.
In Virginia, for instance, students can't have plans to leave the state after graduation, must register within 29 days of an election and must have a valid reason for not being home if they want to vote absentee, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
By contrast, Elizabeth Rueter, a graduate student at Towson who returned to Maryland, her home state, after going to college in Florida, reregistered here on Aug. 28. Two weeks later, she had her voter's registration card.
Now the graduate assistant for civic engagement at Towson University, Rueter organizes the kinds of registration centers and civic education programs that the new student voting act would require of all schools that receive federal funding.
"We are present with the voter registration table at almost every major event (on campus) and some minor events," she said. Her team keeps absentee ballots for Maryland, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to accommodate the majority of out-of-state students.
Still, many Towson students choose to register in Maryland.
"They want their votes to count," Rueter said. "They know that absentee ballots aren't counted unless the election is very close."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.