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Rockin' event registers voters

Senior Ben Wagner (center) helps graduate student Sian Kleindienst (foreground) register to vote during a Rock the Vote event on Kresge Oval.
Senior Ben Wagner (center) helps graduate student Sian Kleindienst (foreground) register to vote during a Rock the Vote event on Kresge Oval.
Photo / Laura Wulf

In an attempt to draw more young voters to the polls, MTV came up with Rock the Vote 14 years ago. Thanks to a number of campus groups, Rock the Vote came to MIT on Friday, Sept. 24.

Rock the Vote is unique in its approach. The organization uses pop culture and other entertainment to appeal to voters aged 18-24, a group traditionally showing low numbers at the polls.

Offering free lunch, loud music, dancing and even salsa lessons, the event drew a steady stream of students to Kresge Oval through the afternoon and into the evening. Students could register to vote and apply for absentee ballots in their home states. Fifteen organizations, including the MIT Arab Student Organization, MIT Black Graduate Student Association, MIT College Republicans and MIT College Democrats, sponsored the outdoor event.

Freshman Zandile Williams of Houston, Texas, was a registered voter, but applied for an absentee ballot.

"I was just out here buying plants in the Student Center and saw this," said Williams. "It seemed like the best time to go ahead and do it."

Though Rock the Vote is a non-partisan organization, most of the students already knew who they were going to vote for this year. Williams thought it important that she vote in Texas, home of President George W. Bush.

"I am voting for Kerry, absolutely," said Williams. "But it is obviously not the norm in Texas."

Greg Dennis, a graduate student studying computer science, was helping to register people. Though he is a member of the MIT Green Party, he was not trying to sway voters.

"I am non-partisan here," said Dennis, who said he'd never seen so many people register at a single campus event. "There's a lot at stake in this election," he said.

In fact, the numbers of MIT students voting in the last election are significantly higher than the nationwide average for the 18-24 age group. According to an editorial in the New York Times on Sept. 28, the national average voter turnout for that age group in the last presidential election was about 37 percent.

City of Cambridge records from the 2000 presidential election indicate that the two MIT precincts reported 45 percent and 52 percent turnout. (Average voter turnout in Cambridge was 64 percent.) These numbers belie the fact that many more students vote by absentee ballot in their home state.

Toyya Pujol-Mitchell, a sophomore in mechanical engineering, applied for an absentee New York ballot on Friday. "I am a New Yorker," she said. "And I want to vote in New York."

She was not alone. Of the 184 forms filled out Friday, 60 percent were out-of-state forms and requests for absentee ballots, said graduate student Shihab Elborai, president of the Arab Student Organization.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 29, 2004 (download PDF).

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