By Jaci Schneider, Opinion Editor
In the last presidential election, most current college students were just learning how to drive and studying for the SATs, but in less than two weeks, they will have their first opportunity to help choose the leader of the United States of America.
Getting involved in politics can be intimidating, especially for college students too busy studying for tests, playing sports and having fun with friends to keep up with the latest breaking election coverage.
“Getting your hand around all of it can be tough,” said Dr. David Dillman, professor of political science.
A survey conducted by Declare Yourself, a nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign to encourage voting, found that most young people don’t vote because they feel uninformed about the candidates and the issues.
Learning about issues takes time. Figuring out which of the six candidates would make the best president takes more than watching a few political commercials and reading the morning news for a couple of days, said Dr. Neal Coates, assistant professor of political science.
“We all have to be aware of the different positions that the candidates might take; if we only spend a few minutes watching the news, we won’t get the whole picture,” Coates said. “You have to watch TV and read the news over a period of time.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the No. 1 reason people don’t vote is they are too busy; 21 percent of registered non-voters reported that they didn’t have time to vote in the 2000 Election.
“Think of all the things you could be doing instead of voting,” Coates said. “Wouldn’t you rather be playing flag football? I did that when I was a student.”
ACU student, Brian Lord, had stuff to do, too, Coates said. “But he was called up by the president to serve in Iraq.”
Lord, a Marine Reserve and sophomore political science major from Winder, Ga., served in Fallujah, Iraq, for about seven months, Coates said.
“What better things did he have to do? He could have played flag football or taken a nap,” Coates said.
Although not all students need to serve their country by fighting in a war, they can serve by casting their vote.
“If students care about war, the economy – decisions made either by the president or Congress – or where this country is going to go, they should get out and vote.” Coates said.
In the 2000 presidential election, only 36 percent of U.S. citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 voted, according to the Census Bureau, the lowest turnout of any age group.
Registering to vote is a simple process, and many organizations try to make it as easy as possible for college students to register and learn about the issues. Web sites like www.rockthevote.com and www.declareyourself.com are specially made to encourage college students to make their voices heard.
Students don’t make up a large portion of the voting population, but they should vote anyway, Coates said.
“College students need to vote so it becomes a habit, like safe driving or eating your vegetables,” he said. “It makes us all better citizens and makes our democracy healthier.”
According the Declare Yourself survey, 77 percent of registered voters aged 25-29 registered when they were 18. The survey concluded that the sooner voting becomes a habit, the harder it is to break.
Rather than blindly choosing the better-looking candidate of the bunch, students should decide what their priorities are before voting.
“People are going to have different perspectives,” Dillman said. Those perspectives will affect what they think is important in a candidate. Students should ask themselves two questions when considering how to vote, Dillman suggested: How do the issues affect me personally? And what would make the United States a better society?
“There would be some economic issues that I might support because I might get a good tax break,” Dillman explained, “but in the best interest of the United States, I might oppose it.”
Although many issues relate directly to students, both Dillman and Coates named the war in Iraq and the economy as two major issues that students should address.
President George W. Bush and John Kerry both oppose terrorism, Coates said, but they will have different approaches on how to address it.
While Bush has said America should stay in Iraq as long as needed, Kerry has said he can have troops out of the country in a year, Coates said. The issue will affect students with friends and family members who may be fighting, but it will also affect everyone in the future in the way America continues to deal with dictators and terrorism.
“Clearly it should be a concern,” Dillman said. He added that another question to ask is: “Will your generation be less free than ours?
“It [terrorism] will affect us, not only in security, but in trade-offs, in terms of civil liberties,” Dillman said.
The second big issue, the economy, will also affect the future lives of students, especially students preparing to graduate and enter the job market. According to the Declare Yourself survey, young people ranked jobs and the economy as the second most important issue; 79 percents cited the economy as very important, and education was the only issue ranked higher, with 87 percent.
“When you guys hit the job market, there will be a debt that may be a burden,” Dillman said. “Your generation could be paying it off the rest of your life.”
Although people may find it difficult to determine what exactly Bush and Kerry say about taxes and the economy, the issue is worth investigating.
“They’ve both [Bush and Kerry] not yet seriously dealt with that issue because it’s such a tough issue,” Dillman said, “but it’s a concern that will affect students.
“You can know generally what these guys are going to do, but not terribly specifically,” he said. “The American people need to ask some questions.”
Becoming informed is something students need to work on, Coates and Dillman said. Issues affect them because they’re getting ready to enter the real world and experience the results of the election.
“If college students really sat down and thought about it, they’d realize a lot of issues affect them,” Coates said. “So they need to get out there and vote.”