So Much for the Student Vote

By Susan Estrich

November 22, 2007 5 min read

College students won't be voting in the Iowa caucus this year. Or, at least, most of those who would have won't now, and those who still can might not know about it yet. No matter how you look at it, it's a mess.

The problem is the calendar. The Iowa caucuses used to be in late January, which meant students who attend college in Iowa could caucus in the cities and towns where they go to school. Since you have to register at least 11 days in advance, that left time to do everything after Christmas — or to register before break and vote when you got back. When this campaign began, all of the candidates had college coordinators and were making appearances on campuses in the hopes that it would encourage students to register to vote and get involved.

Now, it's hardly worth the effort. The caucuses have been moved to January 3, so Iowa can stay ahead of New Hampshire, which wants to stay ahead of South Carolina, not to mention Michigan. The problem is that students who go to college in Iowa aren't back by January 3 and, in most cases, couldn't be if they wanted to because the dorms aren't even open yet.

You can't caucus by absentee ballot. It just doesn't work that way in a process that requires people to go to different corners of the room depending on which candidate they support, and then regroup if their chosen candidate doesn't have enough people to meet the threshold for a delegate in his or her corner, and so on until the final division. Even in this virtual world, it's hard to figure how you could do that without being there. And it wouldn't be Iowa.

But is it Iowa if you disenfranchise an entire category of voters in the never-ending quest to be first?

There was, in fact, no great scheme by the rules writers in the sky that deemed Iowa should go first because it represents a shining light of democracy in action. It was an accident of scheduling back in 1976, caused by conflicts at the convention center months later that, working backward, required the precinct caucuses to be moved forward. But once Iowa became the launching ground for Jimmy Carter's long-shot candidacy, and once Iowans realized what a good thing they had going in terms of candidate attention, media coverage and the general boost both to the economy and the issues agenda that comes from going first, the fight was on to preserve that special status. There's an entire school of thought that says agriculture policy in the United States has been distorted for the last 30 years by promises made by candidates to win votes in Iowa. But that's another story.

What Iowa sold — to the rules committees, the media and the rest of the country — was not its peculiar issues positioning, but its special brand of civic democracy. Iowa might not be representative of the diversity that is America, but it was said to represent a tradition of commitment to politics, of real participation and small "d" democracy that made it a better place than most to "vet" the candidates up close before they move on to the bigger, more impersonal, less participatory arenas where campaigns are won and lost mostly because of money and media.

But how do you square that tradition with a decision to sacrifice college students to the altar of going first?

Of course, students who live in Iowa and go to school out-of-state, or in another part of the state, can caucus with their parents on January 3. But that assumes they knew enough to register to vote at their parents' addresses at least 11 days earlier — that is, the minute they got off the train or plane or out of the car. It assumes they didn't register in the place where they go to school and, considering themselves adults, now may think they "live." It assumes more than most of us who spend our time trying to convince young people — the demographic with the lowest turnout rates going in — to vote would ever choose to assume, at least voluntarily.

I believe colleges have an obligation to teach their students civic literacy in the same way we teach computer literacy, to ensure that our students know as much about how to get involved as they do about how to go online. I spend a great deal of time giving speeches on campuses, and this is often my subject. I regale them with tales of my early days, doing get-out-the-vote in Dade County, Fla., where the heavily senior citizen population will literally go by stretcher if that's what it takes to cast a ballot. Why do you think Social Security is the sacred cow, the third rail, in American politics? It's because old people vote and young people don't, I tell them. And it's your own fault.

Except in Iowa, that is.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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