A member of the College Democrats, Taylor manned a booth aimed at drawing in new members and registering people to vote. The granddaughter of Tuscaloosa Democrat Harrison Taylor, she has grown up with the Democratic Party but says she supports it for its stances on equality and the middle class.
On Friday, Christina Sullivan sat one floor up in a classroom, preparing to call voters in support of the Republican Party. The vice president of the College Republicans on campus, Sullivan said she is drawn to the party for its support of traditional conservative values and “bringing America back to the American Dream.”
Research shows that enthusiasm has declined among college-age voters, but JSU students seem to be bucking the trend.
Engagement at home, nationwide
An Oct. 17 poll conducted by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics shows a 13 percent drop — from 79 percent to 66 percent — in registered voters among 18-24 year-olds. The same survey shows that less than half of respondents in that age group are definitely voting in the upcoming election, a 15 percent drop from the 63 percent who said they would definitely be voting in 2008. A Pew Research Center poll conducted last month also shows that roughly half as many voters under the age of 30 are following campaign news closely as four years ago (18 percent versus the former 35 percent).
But student party chapters are seeing a resurgence in members and activity in this election year. For the JSU College Democrats, membership has nearly quintupled — from about 20 students to more than 90 — since the club began meeting in mid-September.
The College Republicans, said Sullivan, has grown to about 40 or 50 members.
Lori Owens, head of the political science department at JSU, noted the importance of the youth vote in electing President Barack Obama in 2008 and is eager to see how the youth turnout compares this year.
“Both parties are going to have to reach out to younger voters if they’re going to bring new people into the fold,” she said.
Since she began her tenure with JSU in 1998, Owens has seen participation in the student political clubs go in cycles.
“Some election years, sometimes one party is more fired up than the other,” she said. “This year both parties seem to be more enthusiastic.”
Parties, politics at Jax State
Carlos Acosta, president of the College Republicans, said he has focused on rebuilding this year —first the membership, then the bank account. A self-described social and fiscal conservative, Acosta said he favors the party’s support of small business and is strictly pro-life. Even in a red state like Alabama, it is important to drum up support for the Republican ticket and get out the vote on Election Day, so he and other members on Friday were calling voters across the state to emphasize the Republican message.
College Democrats, meanwhile, have been volunteering on behalf of local candidates like circuit clerk contender Missy Hall and Foster Marshall, who is running for circuit judge.
At the chapter’s meeting Wednesday night (dubbed “Demsday” by the group), chapter president Brett Johnson encouraged members to be engaged on key Democratic issues and to visit the county Democratic headquarters in Anniston to volunteer and make phone calls on behalf of the party.
Political enthusiasm on campus hasn’t been limited to partisan student groups. At a September event, the Student Government Association helped more than 300 students register to vote in Calhoun County and will continue the process throughout the year, said SGA president Jason Sumner. “Forms can be intimidating,” he said, “especially for a student who’s never voted before.”
As part of the nationwide American Democracy Project, JSU hosted a debate-watch party for the second presidential debate. About 250 students showed up for the event on a Tuesday night, said Owens, campus coordinator for the project and head of the political science department at JSU.
“The students were so attentive and polite,” she said. “I felt like the group was kind of diverse in their support.” Several students, she said, approached her after the debate with questions, seeking to become part of the process.
The College Democrats are hosting a nonpartisan local candidates forum Nov. 1 and have invited local candidates for circuit clerk and circuit judge to participate. Both they and the College Republicans will set up tables to provide information and recruit new members at that time.
“It’s a great opportunity for those candidates to come to campus and meet the students before the election,” Sumner said. The SGA president encourages students to learn about local candidates and government because decisions made locally can directly affect students’ lives.
“It is a responsibility, no matter where you reside in this country, to have a say, to practice democracy — especially in an environment like this, an educational environment.”
Statewide campus participation
Statewide, the campus political landscape is widely varied.
According to Jackson Pruett, chair of the state College Republican Federation, some chapters are so involved as to have members serving on local Republican County Executive Committees.
“That’s awesome for local candidate interaction,” he said.
Although it hasn’t come easy, Pruett said “more college students than ever in Alabama are calling themselves Republicans.”
Pruett noted that many students become politically active for the first time in college. “The stronger our chapters are, the more likely they become Republicans in their four years and remain Republicans throughout their voting lives,” he said.
According to Alex Schriver, chair of the College Republican National Committee, the organization’s latest numbers show statewide membership in Alabama at a little more than 2,000 — a number boosted by large clubs at University of Alabama and Auburn University, two of the largest clubs in the nation.
Beth Clayton, state president for the College Democrats in Alabama, said that “new chapters have sprung up and are making a big splash in the state.”
Clayton said she did not have a complete membership list for the state because the responsibility for keeping rosters falls to local chapters, but she estimated that there are 225 active members statewide plus many more occasional participants.
The most active chapters in the state are at Auburn, the University of Alabama, and Jacksonville State, she said. The Alabama State University chapter is working toward a goal of registering 1,000 voters by the Oct. 26 deadline. On Thursday, said chapter president Stephen Webb, the club was past the 800 mark and still needed to count forms received at a “Drum up the Vote” pep rally and last-minute efforts on Friday.
However, the response hasn’t been quite what she had hoped for in an election year.
“This election being as divisive as it is, I think a lot of students are trying to stay back and not get involved in it,” she said.
And those who are involved tend to get spread too thin.
“Chapter leaders who are working on campaigns and trying to motivate chapters, increase membership,” she said, “They’re kind of losing steam and losing momentum because they are so tired … When they lose their momentum, the whole chapter suffers, and we can’t afford that in a state like this.”
Staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.