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Educating new voters

This fall is no time for business-as-usual on our campuses. November brings most undergraduates their first opportunity to vote in a presidential election. Educational institutions - and liberal arts colleges in particular - must take steps to ensure that students understand fully the implications of voter registration, and can reconcile single-issue politics with national needs and recognize the politicians behind smooth television performances.

There is more to voter registration than setting up tables and encouraging students to register. Some states - Pennsylvania, for example - revoke their financial aid to students who register to vote on a campus in another state. Colleges have an obligation to inform first-time voters of any conditions that might apply to their place of registration. And students interested in gaining the greatest impact with their votes should weigh the merits of registering in a state dominated by their party, such as the Democrats in Massachusetts, vs. filing an absentee ballot in their home state where the presidential outcome is undecided. A student's familiarity - or lack of same - with state and local candidates should also influence his or her decision about where to vote.

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But our responsibility as educators merely begins with registration. Our students must understand the meaning of their votes at every level, and they must learn to listen critically to the endless stream of righteous campaign proclamations. Single-issue politics and media manipulation are potent campaign stimulants that motivate voters but may challenge the democratic process. In an atmosphere of superficial crisis, educators must assist students in developing reliable sources of information and in interpreting the conflicting portrayals of candidates that pervade the media. We read of Geraldine Ferraro's tax returns and those of her noncandidate husband. Religion threatens the republic, we are told. Pollsters treat the campaign like horse races, telling us our votes won't count weeks before the running.

But what of the victors when the race is won? Who has the best proposal for dealing with the Soviets on the issue of nuclear arms? How do the candidates propose to reduce the federal deficit? What is our foreign policy to be? What principles shall govern the approaching selection of three Supreme Court justices? The court has shaped the nation as much as its presidents have. Corporate interests dominated the post-Civil War bench; Franklin Roosevelt tried to pack the court to ensure support for the New Deal; the Warren court changed American civil rights substantially; and the Nixon-Ford administration replaced the liberal justices with conservatives.

Students are idealistic. They seem to believe in fundamental rights and the democratic process, but they're easily swayed by persuasive - and often prejudicial - faculty. We teach them that political repression is wrong, that the denial of the freedom of expression is wrong, that public assembly and protest are right, and that more of the world population is disenfranchised than not. But do we teach our students the how and why of voting? Do we, in fact, respect voting as an institution?

In the last presidential election, only 34 percent of 18- to 19-year-olds and 42 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds said they voted. Nearly 80 percent of those who completed four years of college voted, whereas among high school dropouts only 44 percent said they went to the polls. The correlation between education and voting is obvious, but we must encourage even greater participation if we are to nurture a sophisticated electorate that will exercise its authority wisely and may even produce an uncommon leader. We must act now. November is near, and we have much to do.

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