Students set voting example for other collegians

Don’t tell Keneshia Grant college students don’t vote.

The Florida A&M University freshman stood in line at the Leon County Courthouse on Thursday with a couple hundred other students, waiting for her turn to cast an early ballot for Tuesday’s elections – her first ever.

At times, the diminutive Grant had to force friends back into line who were thinking of going home.

“My relatives, my people, my ancestors sacrificed for the right to vote,” said Grant, 19, of Fort Lauderdale. “The least I can do is fill in a bubble.”

The students, mostly from FAMU, participated in a rally at the Old Capitol designed to both encourage more people to vote early and get more students to the polls.

Chanting “Count the Votes” and carrying signs that said “We won’t be tricked again,” the crowd gave off a 2000 presidential election vibe.

But the students who marched downtown Thursday said they also were concerned with what happened during the Sept. 10 primary, when human mistakes and mechanical errors prevented thousands from voting in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

“I’m trying not to give up. It means a lot to me,” said Reginald Wesley, 20, a FAMU junior from Louisville, Ky.

By the end of the day, about 1,060 absentee ballots were cast at the courthouse. Supervisor of elections Ion Sancho said he couldn’t determine how many of those were cast by students but noted that his office accepted 850 ballots Wednesday.

“We’re breaking records left and right,” said Sancho, who briefly addressed the young crowd, explaining the absentee ballot process and extolling students’ patriotic duty to vote.

The event, which featured its own deejay, was sponsored by People for the American Way as part of its “Arrive with 5” campaign, designed to increase voter turnout. Organizers described the rally as nonpartisan, although there was a smattering of signs supporting Gov. Jeb Bush’s Democratic opponent, Bill McBride, as well as the ballot initiative to reduce class sizes.

Once across the street, the students stood in line, looking over sample ballots and debating issues such as the class-size amendment and a proposed county half-percent sales tax for school construction.

Not all students got to participate, however. Several students were turned away because they were still registered in their home counties.

“They were telling us on campus that we’d be able to vote,” said Rod Owens, 20, who is registered in Duval County. “I might just go home this weekend and get an absentee ballot.”

It’s that extra hurdle many college students face that helps make them one of the lowest-participating groups in the country, said Jeffrey Mondak, a political scientist at Florida State University. He said students also tend to be apathetic about local politics because they live in a town for a only few years and never develop roots.

“Somewhere in their mid-20s, as they get jobs and especially if they have kids, they start to pay attention to what’s going on,” he said.

That certainly applies to the two voter precincts on the FSU campus, which generally lag behind the rest of the county on voter turnout.

But Sancho said the FAMU campus precincts generally mirror the overall county turnout figures. He said that might be because those students are inundated with the campus’ civil rights history.

Andre Hammel, FAMU’s student body president, said it’s a question of being politically savvy.

“If we want to get better services from state government,” he said, “we need to let them know we’re a constituency that does vote, not just complains.”