College Democrats, Republicans struggle to ignite UWRF student interest

Posted February 9, 2016

With the upcoming Wisconsin primary election in April and the presidential election in November, two student organizations at UW-River Falls are trying to spark interest in politics.

However, students haven’t been very eager to participate. Both the College Democrats and the College Republicans said that less than 10 students typically attend their meetings.

A lack of youth interest is reflected in voter numbers, as well. Nationally, 38 percent of the voting-age population voted in November 2014, compared to 16 percent of people ages 18 to 24, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Wisconsin, the numbers were higher, with nearly 54 percent of the total population and 27 percent of people ages 18 to 24 voting.

Neil Kraus, chair of the political science department, said that votes from younger people, just like any group, have the potential to shift the balance of an election. He said that part of the youth disinterest in voting could be related to politicians’ lack of focus on them.

“Candidates are pretty smart people, regardless of what we think about them,” Kraus said. “They’re going to pay attention to who they have to pay attention to, and if particular groups are not voting in very high numbers, then they’re not going to speak to those groups.”

As far as the reasons given for not voting, all of the age groups except for 65 and older reported being too busy or having scheduling conflicts, including 31 percent of the 18 to 24 year olds who didn’t vote.

Kraus said that people who claim to be too busy have other options, including early and absentee voting. He said that while voting can be an inconvenient addition to anyone’s day, people who use time as an excuse likely don’t view it as a priority.

Co-chair of the College Democrats Amanda Norby-White said that voting doesn’t take as long as students might expect, especially if they register to vote before going to the polls. Both she and co-chair Joseph Norby-White have completed the training allowing them to register voters and plan to have a table in the University Center where students can sign up.

Melanie Meyers, vice president of the College Republicans, said the group would like to start hosting more agricultural activities to get students’ interest. A milk drinking contest, an event that Meyers said State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) would be interested in attending, is one possibility.

“I don’t think we’ve unlocked the potential of the conservative base here,” Meyers said. “I feel like there’s a lot of organizations that agriculturalists are involved in, and I think on this campus, we could have a stronger College Republicans group if we targeted more of the agriculturalists.”

Joseph Norby-White said that the voting districts provide an extra headache for UWRF students when it comes time to vote.

“One thing that’s frustrating for a lot of students on this campus in particular for voting is that the dorms on the west end of campus have to vote at the high school, whereas most of the dorms actually vote in the UC,” he said.

Residents of the west end of campus include those living in the all-freshmen Johnson Hall, who Joseph Norby-White said are the least likely to be able to get to the high school easily. The College Democrats often provide rides for students who want to vote but lack transportation.

Attending political events has been part of the efforts from both organizations. The College Democrats attended the Bernie Sanders rally in St. Paul on Jan. 26. Meyers said that the College Republicans are planning to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. in March.

“As an organization, I think it benefits us because we’ll be more involved, and it would be nice if we attracted new members by saying we’re going to events like this,” Meyers said.

Amanda Norby-White said that she thinks students should give involvement with political organizations a chance.

“I think a lot of people think that politics isn’t really that fun,” Amanda Norby-White said, “but I think once you give it a shot, it really is fun and interesting.”

The College Democrats meet every Tuesday at 6 p.m. in 282 Kleinpell Fine Arts, and the College Republicans meetings are every Thursday at 7 p.m. in room 322 of the University Center.