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A 2007 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that the United States ranked 139thin voter participation out of 172 world democracies. So to do their part to help increase voter turnout, the office of Citizenship and Service-Learning at Missouri State University initiated the “Campus Vote” project this past May. Throughout the summer, volunteers and students working in the CASL office registered incoming freshman during the SOAR orientation sessions, and will continue to register voters on campus until the October 8thregistration deadline. Senior Economics major Jared Bone is one of those volunteers – he stood at a booth outside Plaster Student Union on Tuesday, which was the National Voter Registration Day. He says his civic duty as a volunteer is simply to be a resource on campus for the students who want to register.
“You want to be able to let them vote if they want to vote. Part of it is just letting them fulfill their civic duty of voting, and helping them feel like their vote matters,” Bone said.
But Bone says while he is helping many students register to vote, a majority of them that pass by his booth don’t see to pay much attention.
“Some students come by and are already signed up to vote, most of them are just changing their address to their school address. But a lot of them just look at the table and walk by. You know, you can’t force someone to sign up and vote, and if you force them to sign up and vote, they’re not going to vote themselves,” Bone said.
So why aren’t more students voting? Sophomore International Business major Bailey Keith, who works in the CASL office, says it’s easy for them to be complacent about politics and expect everyone else to research the candidates and elect the politicians that will get the job done.
“But they don’t understand that just being on this university, so much legislation has gone through to get us to this point, and now it’s their turn to voice their opinions and to help with that legislation. By doing that, you have to get out there and vote, you have to show that we care, that we’re not taking our education for granted,” Keith said.
As Keith works with other CASL members on the “Campus Vote” project, she says her civic duty is a personal one- she talks with her friends, and encourages them to be active citizens.
“For me, I’m going home, talking to my roommates, trying to get them involved in politics and be the responsible citizen they should be. In classes, [I’m] talking to my classmates about registering to vote. So, mine’s more one on one with my peers, and trying to get them to understand that they need to be responsible and just be heard so they’re making a difference as well,” Keith said.
CASL director Kathy Nordyke, who’s helped spearhead the “Campus Vote” project, says her civic duty is simple – get out and vote, and set a good example for the students and her fellow colleagues.
“I have a responsibility to get out there and vote, just as I’m empowering and asking everyone else to do, as well as actually being engaged in our community, being involved, because it takes all of us together to truly make a difference,” Nordyke said.
So the Campus Vote Project gets you registered and ready to vote.. But how do you go about determining what and who to vote for? That’s where the “Missouri State Tele-Town Hall” project comes in. The Tele-Town Hall project is funded by a $500 mini-grant from Missouri Campus Compact, and will basically be one big conference call. People will be able to dial in and register at 7pm on Tuesday, October 30th, a week before the election. MSU Political Science professor Dr. Brian Calfano has directed the project from the beginning. He partnered with the CASL office to give the students in his American Political Behavior class this semester real world training opportunities through service learning. He says these voters will listen to a presentation from some of his student volunteers, then dial in a code to ask questions. Think of it as an electronic town hall.
“The idea of a tele-town hall came about because we thought, ‘Well, people can call in, get information about where to go vote, information about what the candidates are saying about major issues, as well as general information about where to go to find out if the latest claims from certain campaign strategists or the candidates themselves are actually accurate,’” Calfano said.
According to Calfano, the Tele-Town Hall project is new for Missouri State, new for the Ozarks, and fairly new throughout the country, at least for unbiased civic engagement purposes.
“I can’t stress enough that this is really a one-off. It’s a first time that I’m aware of, that a university has done from a public service, public information standpoint. The technology is always used by marketers, political campaigns, partisans, that sort of thing- but not from the standpoint of civic engagement, community understanding, information availability, that sort of thing. Which is how we view this,” Calfano said.
Calfano says the project will play an important role for Ozarks voters because he says many people in the United States choose to get their political information exclusively from certain sources, while avoiding others.
“Which can be problematic, because if that source is promoting a certain view, or there’s information about a candidate or a story that’s covered from a different angle, at a different outlet - and that’s not in that person’s purview regarding sources that they’re going to check - then there’s going to be information bias, and really a lack of understanding, potentially of the basic facts of an issue. And that’s kind of dangerous in a country where people are able to exercise their right to vote on who gets to run the government,” Calfano said.
Calfano says it’s his civic duty as a political science professor to be involved in the political process as a non-biased source of information. Part of this duty includes not voting in the elections, because if he were to take a certain stance on political issues, he says he won’t be able to view these issues objectively – thus compromising his effectiveness as a professor and researcher. He’s not discouraging people from voting, but says there are certain professionals in our society whose votes are counterproductive.
“To me, if you have a dog in the fight so to speak, I’m not really sure how impartial you can be. And if you take the view that nothing’s ever impartial, there’s always some bias, well why would you want to contribute to it? Anyone who I think believes that they can separate their own personal views as an advocate from their work as a commentator, or a teacher, or a researcher, is on some level fooling themselves. I don’t see how you can do that,” Calfano said.
Courtney Parsel is a senior Political Science student at MSU. She’s creating newspaper advertisements and coordinating the direct mail marketing for the Tele-Town Hall project. She says she doesn’t see it as her civic duty but rather as an opportunity to provide this unbiased information to voters. She says it can get confusing for voters who don’t study politics, and only have those repetitive commercials and advertisements to base an opinion off of.
“I think that it’s something really important and kind of innovative that there’s places that people can go to on the local level and hear facts, and not be in a position to be swayed one way or another,” Parsel said.
For more information about the “Campus Vote” and “Tele-Town Hall” projects, visit our website, ksmu.org. Reporting for KSMU and the Sense of Community Series, I’m Samuel Crowe.