Issues drive college voter registration, students say

Brandon Paykamian • Sep 24, 2019 at 7:08 PM

When it comes to getting East Tennessee State University students registered to vote, Seth Manning, a graduate assistant with ETSU Votes, says it’s important to relate political issues to people’s everyday lives. 

College student voter turnout nearly doubled from the 2014 midterm elections to the 2018 midterm elections, according to a recent study from Tufts University's Institute for Democracy and Higher Education released Thursday.

Manning believes that’s partly because students are thinking more about the sociopolitical issues that affect them most. 

“We’ve talked to a lot of students about the student debt crisis, and they want some sort of resolution to that,” the 22-year-old public health student said, citing additional concerns about climate change.

“Because of that, we’re seeing a lot more students come out to our (voter registration) events. We’re seeing them get more engaged in the civic process.”

On Tuesday morning, Manning was busy setting up a booth in ETSU’s Borchuck Plaza with the Washington County Election Commission to register students to vote, as part of ETSU Vote’s National Voter Registration Day “blitz.” 

Manning wanted to educate students on how to vote and why he thinks it's important to vote in the first place. 

“We ask students what they care about. When I pose that question to them, some students come to me with a direct answer like, ‘Well I have all this debt that I need to work off,’ but sometimes, it’s about different issues. It can be a wide variety — it can be about guns, it can be about immigration,” he said. “At the same time, our message to them is that it doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you stand on, your vote at the end of the day does matter.”

There are about 77,200 people registered to vote in Washington County, according to the county election office. In total, 45,544 Washington County citizens voted during November 2018’s midterm elections, and Manning wants to see that number grow, particularly among young voters.

“Last year, during the fall semester, we had a total of 300 students registered with 18 different drives we did,” Manning said.

The ETSU Young Democratic Socialists of America was the first political group to show up to the campus plaza Tuesday morning. Student organizer Austin Cable, 20, said they planned to garner support for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential bid.

“Five hundred thousand-plus people a year go in debt because of medical bills, and that is a U.S. phenomenon. Most developed countries in the world don’t see that,” he said. “And we’re on a college campus — there’s over $15 trillion of student debt. Bernie Sanders’ plan cancels all of that student debt and makes four-year public institutions free. That would have a major effect on every single person on campus …”

How to register to vote: 

• Register online at ovr.govote.tn.gov, download and fill out a voter registration application from the secretary of state website and mail it to your county election office. You can also pick up an application at your county election commission office, county clerk’s office, public library or register of deeds office.

• Applicants must be a U.S. citizen, 18 years old by the time of the election and a Tennessee resident.

• Those with felony convictions could be ineligible to vote, depending on the circumstances of their case.

• Voters need to be properly registered no later than 30 days before the election to participate.

For more info from the Washington County Election Commission, call 423-753-1688 or visit their website at wcecoffice.com