Mark Bennett

Mark Bennett

It’s inspiring to see young people lined up to vote.

They’ve long been seen sprinkled among older voters at various polling sites around Vigo County. Still, a concentration of this community’s youngest voters has turned out to cast ballots in the past two elections — 2018’s midterm and 2019’s Terre Haute municipal — at the vote center inside the Indiana State University Hulman Memorial Student Union. They’ll get that same opportunity in the 2020 election.

ISU has gained a reputation for civic engagement through the past decade, first for its high rates of volunteerism around the county and most recently for the student participation in voting. Washington Monthly, a nonprofit magazine tracking politics and government, placed ISU on its Best Colleges for Student Voting list, along with 156 other schools. ISU received the same recognition in 2018.

The presence of the on-campus vote center — open to any Vigo County voter — has likely contributed to students’ increased electoral activity. The poll site in Dede Plaza inside the student union has been solid since its debut in 2018. It gave those young people a familiar spot to exercise their right to vote, just as voters from other generations have with polling locations in their comfort zones, such as American Legion posts, firehouses, churches and union halls.

Landing a vote center at ISU required tenacity on the part of its supporters. The county Election Board turned down the proposal for the 2016 election, but later approved the site for the 2018 midterm. In the 2019 city election, students seemed particularly interested in a referendum on that ballot to place a casino in Terre Haute.

Now, they’ll be voting on a full slate of offices, from the presidency to the Vigo County School Board races.

Many will be first-time voters. Some were among the hundreds who stood in long lines, waiting to vote for congressional, state and local candidates in 2018, or those that helped choose Terre Haute’s mayor and city council members last year.

Newcomers have had numerous opportunities to register. More chances lie ahead, but Indiana’s deadline for registering — Monday, Oct. 5 — is drawing close.

ISU’s chapter of the nonpartisan American Democracy Project has scheduled 16 “tent talks” this fall, said Jennifer Christian, the campus coordinator for the project and assistant director for ISU’s Center for Community Engagement. Tent talks prior to the Oct. 5 registration deadline will allow students, faculty and staff to register and get better informed about the process.

The next tent talk happens from 1 to 3 p.m. today near the fountain outside the student union.

Project leaders will continue the tent talks — under an actual tent set up near the fountain — even after the registration deadline. They’ll go on through the Friday before the Nov. 3 election so that registered voters can double-check their status, especially the residence listed on their registration. That’s important. The county where Hoosiers are registered is where they must cast their ballot, either in person or absentee by mail, Christian emphasized.

Among the ISU students, Christian estimates that half decide to vote by absentee ballot as residents of their hometowns, and half choose to register as Vigo County residents. “There’s a mix,” Christian said.

Their activities go beyond registration and understanding the state requirements. The American Democracy Project hosted a “Cookies and the Constitution” event Thursday morning. Students listened to two guest speakers, munched on cookies decorated to look like the historic document signed in 1787 and got a pocket version of the Constitution.

Five-hundred of the pocket Constitution copies were handed out.

Watch parties are scheduled for the upcoming presidential and vice presidential debates, with refreshments, games and prizes planned. An Election Night party is also scheduled.

Those activities represent a serious commitment to voter education, Nancy Rogers, the ISU vice president for university engagement, said in a statement. “Through our American Democracy Project, we are engaged in daily in-person and social media outreach to students to make sure they are registered to vote and know how to vote,” Rogers stated, while also recognizing the support of the Election Board and Vigo County Clerk’s Office for the campus vote center.

Nationwide, young people could be energized to turn out in larger numbers this fall, compared to recent elections. The impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic on the economy, including the financial well-being of American universities and colleges, is a primary concern, as are demonstrations for social justice. Marches across the U.S. in 2017 and 2018 over equality for women and gun violence drew an unusually high 35% of eligible 18- to 29-year-olds to the polls in 2018, according to Washington Monthly.

Turnout by under-30 eligible voters ticked up slightly to 46.1% in 2016, compared to 45% in 2012, according to the respected Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (or CIRCLE).

Two 2020 surveys reveal the precarious nature of youth voters. More under-30 Americans said they plan to vote this fall than similar age brackets in 2016 or 2018, according to a Harvard Institute of Politics survey. Unfortunately, a CIRCLE survey also revealed that 51% of voting-eligible young people didn’t know the logistics of casting their first votes, in terms of how to register and the methods and sites.

They’re not lazy or uninterested. In most cases, they just don’t know how to actually vote.

“I think voting can be very overwhelming for young voters,” Christian said. “I really think it starts with voter education. And young voters don’t have that education yet. And that’s what we’re trying to do with the American Democracy Project.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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