Black First-Time Voters Prepare for Election Day

With Election Day less than a month away, Howard University senior Ashley Travers is already prepared to cast her ballot in her first presidential election.

“I finally get a chance to have my voice heard, especially in this election that has a lot of women’s issues being discussed,” said Travers, 21, a print journalism major from D.C. “I have big concerns with the abortion issue. I feel like it’s a women’s choice to terminate a pregnancy. If I don’t want to go through a pregnancy, I should be able to make that decision on my own.”

At 19, Coppin State University’s Jasmine Muse is just as excited about casting her vote on Nov. 6. She’s concerned about “college issues, like financial aid.”

“It feels really good because I feel like I’m going to be part of making a change,” said Muse, of Baltimore County, who registered last month when Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) hosted a “Coppin’s Rocking the Vote” campaign on campus.

“I encouraged my friends and people who hadn’t registered to go when they came to the school.”

As Election Day looms closer, camps for both President Barack Obama and Republican contender Mitt Romney are reaching out to every branch of the electorate for support. Both candidates have stumped on college campuses, trying to mobilize young voters to rally to their respective sides. College-age voters made a significant contribution in 2008, organizing fundraisers voter registration drives and door-knocking campaigns. Obama benefited significantly from college supporters.

“The 2008 presidential election featured young Blacks 18 to 24 recording the highest levels of turnout among any racial/ethnic group of young people since 18-year-olds received the right to vote,” a report by the Black Youth Project said. The report noted that 43 percent of voters between 18 and 29 voted for the first time in 2008.

Four years later, however, college students have been much quieter, analysts said, attributing the lack of action to a fall-off in enthusiasm that was sparked four years ago by the excitement of Obama’s historic candidacy. It is especially critical for young people to engage in the electoral process this year in the wake of efforts to limit Blacks’ access to the polls, experts said. The Black Youth Project estimated that as many as 700,000 young, would-be voters could encounter resistance or be turned away from polls next month because of revised voter laws.

The group’s study, “Turning Back the Clock on Voting Rights: The Impact of New Photo Identification Requirements on Young People of Color,” paints a grim picture of how changes to voting rights are impacting young minorities. In Georgia, Indiana and Kansas, for instance, residents will be required to produce state-issued identification before they can vote. The requirement is expected to disproportionately affect older voters, minority voters and students attending college out of state.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, while only nine percent of all Whites lack adequate identification to vote, that number jumps to 16 percent for Latinos and 25 percent for Blacks.

Though Maryland and D.C. have no general voter I.D. requirements, first-time voters may be asked on Nov. 6 to show identification.

Students at Morgan are working to make sure the campus is represented at the polls on Election Day. Student leaders have held voter registration drives, posted signs in the main dining hall on campus and a freshman women’s dorm, and placed registration forms in the University Student Center.

“They definitely are very motivated to register people to vote,” said Morgan Reyes, 23. “For a lot of people, this will be their first time voting so the school, the Student Government Association, and the campus organizations are pushing registration along with people just wanting to vote.”

Across town, Dalonte Smith, a Coppin student and D.C. resident who registered at a campus registration drive there, said he plans to vote, though he has not researched the issues. “I was just going to vote for whoever my mother votes for,” he said.

Travers said that even with the efforts on campus and throughout the nation’s capital, she still knows many people who have no plans to vote.

“This election is really big for the college student, but people my age, in general, are indifferent,” she said.

Howard University student organizations have been working double-time to combat voter apathy. Travers said information sessions have been held for students on voting, including one that focused on how to complete an absentee ballot, an option some college students don’t have. In two states, Michigan and Tennessee, if an out-of-state student registered to vote for the first time by mail, they cannot cast an absentee ballot.

Washington, D.C. has no restrictions on absentee voting, regardless of how you registered, but there are different deadlines and regulations for each state. Students are encouraged to check their county’s board of election websites to learn what rules govern registration, absentee ballot voting, early voting and other information.

“I think students in particular are going to have the hardest time navigating absentee voting rules that require them to appear in person,” said Lee Rowland, counsel with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. “More than any other population, they are likely to be physically present in another state without the ability to go home while voting absentee.”

Rowland said when it comes to students casting a valid ballot, it is most important that they know the “simple nuts and bolts of registration deadlines and the rules for voting in their state.”

Several organizations, such as Project Vote, have hotlines to answer questions and to mitigate any problems that might arise on Election Day. Voter advocates urge voters to put numbers in their cell phones so that they will be readily available should a problem occur.

The hotline for the American Civil Liberties Union, 1-888-496-ACLU, will have trained volunteers ready for dispatch when necessary. If an investigation proves that a voting right has been violated, attorneys will challenge suspect practices in court.

“Our election protection hotline is an easy way for voters to get answers to any question no matter how small,” said Amy Cruice, director of the ACLU of Maryland’s Election Protection Campaign. “To be safe, it makes sense to register early, know where your polling site is early, and take advantage of early voting.”

The Maryland deadline for voter registration is Oct. 16 at 9 p.m. Voters in Washington, D.C. have until Oct. 19 at 9 p.m. to turn in their application, but can also register at the polls on Election Day.

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Black First-Time Voters Prepare for Election Day


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