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When she turned 18 in February, Keri Mongelluzzo wanted to partake in the privileges of adulthood.
“I don’t smoke, I didn’t want to go to a strip club, so what do you do?” she asked.
Mongelluzzo headed to the Hernando County elections office to register to vote. The University of Florida freshman said she’s excited about casting her first vote in November’s presidential election, as shown by the Barack Obama T-shirts she recently bought on campus
Student supporters of the Democratic nominee for president are a daily presence on campus selling gear such as Obama beer koozies and a T-shirt that quotes Obama as saying “Go Gators!” at a January event. They’re also taking part in efforts to register students in greater numbers.
Other groups are also involved in voter registration efforts, the latest of which was an event Tuesday at the UF Bookstore featuring the cast of the ABC Family show “Greek.”
Initial numbers suggest the efforts to get students to register are paying off, but the great unknown is whether these students will actually vote.
A leader of UF’s Obama group said its members registered or switched the location of the registration for more than 2,500 students on the first day of classes alone.
But experts question whether voter registration efforts will translate into voters turning out at the polls. While turnout among voters ages 18 to 24 surged to the highest level in a decade in 2004, it still stayed below 50 percent.
“I don’t foresee the percentage going up drastically if at all,” said Dan Smith, UF political science professor and interim director of UF’s Political Campaigning Program.
While Smith said young voters have a real excitement for Obama, he also said those voters are notoriously difficult to get to the polls. He said last month’s primary election illustrates students’ lack of engagement in the political process.
Just 33 voters cast ballots at UF’s Reitz Union, by far the lowest total of any precinct in the county.
To be fair, the primary fell on the second day of classes and lacked prominent state and national races. Students are engaged in the presidential race because of issues such as global warming and the Iraq war, said R.J. Raley, who is registering voters on campus for the Florida Public Interest Research Group.
“Their issues are so front and center,” he said.
The group’s non-partisan New Voters Project isn’t taking any chances that newly registered voters won’t cast ballots.
The group’s workers ask students to sign a pledge that they will vote and to provide their cell phone number, which will be used in mobilization efforts. They’re also asked to send text messages with voter registration information to at least five friends.
“When you have your peers asking you to vote, it’s much more effective” Raley said.
For their part, students say both the candidates and the issues in this presidential race have piqued their interest.
Garrett Garner, co–coordinator of the Gators for Obama group, said young voters are enthusiastic about Obama’s support for issues such as providing a $4,000 tax credit to help pay tuition in exchange for 100 hours of community service.
“He’s addressing the economic concerns we’re seeing right now across all lines,” Garner said.
Young conservatives say they’ve been motivated by Republican candidate John McCain’s selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
UF political science student Jean Morrow, 20, said Palin represents the belief of young conservatives who oppose abortion and favor limited government.
“She’s conservative to the core: She’s pro-life, she has five children,” Morrow said.
But Morrow conceded that Obama T-shirts are a much more common sight on students at this point. Mongelluzzo will be wearing one of them. She said she believes she will also be joined by other young voters in casting ballots this November.
“College students seem to be more excited about the election than the average American,” she said.
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