Friday, March 28, 2008

Campus politics in Facebook age

The Miami Herald

''The future'' is the biggest incentive for young voters on South Florida's college campuses, but free T-shirts, debates and online networking help spark interest, too.


When 20-year-old Shane Johnson signed on to become a resident assistant at Nova Southeastern University, he figured he'd have to explain the rules of dorm living, offer advice about college life and maybe plan a social event or two. He had no idea that his stint as an RA would lead to organizing Step It Up, a campus-wide movement to promote awareness of the political process.

While thinking of ways to educate his floor's residents about politics, Johnson discussed a few of his ideas with his advisors and they encouraged him to expand the project. His events soon became an outreach to the entire campus and have inspired a wave of political interest for the student body.

Step It Up boasts multiple registration drives, complete with an electronic voting system that confirms voter registration status, as well as the location of the registration.

''We registered over 100 students in a three-day span,'' says Johnson, a junior who is a business major.

The initiative also invites guest speakers to campus to encourage students to participate in the voting process. Upcoming speakers include Brenda Smith, Broward County's supervisor of elections, and a group of war veterans, who will speak about Iraq.

''In the past, we've been seen as the age range that doesn't care,'' Johnson says. ``This is our country, we are the leaders of tomorrow and we have to do whatever it takes to know what's going on and have an active voice in the world.''

Further south, at the University of Miami, there are four political organizations registered on campus: the Council for Democracy, Get Out the Vote, College Republicans and Young Democrats.

Mewelau Hall, 23, is a senior who serves as the director of Get Out the Vote (GOTV). This non-partisan group works with other partisan groups to engage students in the political process. With a staff of 12, Hall and the members of GOTV hold mock debates, political rallies and voter registration drives. They also give away T-shirts and food to remind students that the voting process is not boring.

''Even though we give free pizza to students who vote, it's not to coerce them, it's to let them know that there is an incentive to voting,'' Hall says. ``The biggest incentive will be their future.''

On the Miami Shores campus of Barry University, students combined their acting skills with their political knowledge in a full-scale mock debate that represented all the candidates on the ballot for the January presidential primary. That was followed by a mock election.

The debate drew representatives from the Democratic National Committee/Florida Democratic Party, as well as a rep from the Rudy Giuliani campaign.

The College Republicans at Florida International University offer registration drives on and off campus. Several members also are active in Republican campaigns, where they've been able to witness the process firsthand.

Instead of bringing in intermediaries to explain platforms and policies, College Republicans have reached out to candidates and campaign leaders to speak on campus. The school has had visits from U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman and former New York Mayor Giuliani.

''The people elect the decision makers and if you don't vote, then you can't really complain about the decisions being made,'' says Juan Carlos Rabaina, 21, a representative of College Republicans.

College Democrats meet once a week, hand out voter registration forms and use to reach out to students.

''We have 235 members in our Facebook group,'' says Chris Cabral, 21, president of the group. ``When we have events, we put them on Facebook and we receive RSVPs from that. We've realized that sending out e-mails is less effective than Facebook because students don't check their e-mail everyday, but they always check Facebook.''

College Democrats also go door to door in the neighborhoods surrounding the campus, informing residents about the candidates and registering voters.

''It's the most effective mode of voter contact,'' Cabral says. ``If you talk to people one-on-one about the political process, they're more likely to listen and take action.''

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