USF hopes to spark voter interest with straw poll

With the 2008 presidential election gearing up to be one of the most competitive races in recent history, the University of South Florida is doing its part to increase voter interest by conducting a straw poll on campus Jan. 22.

The poll – sponsored by Pi Sigma Alpha, the Honors College and Student Government – is designed to gauge the political stance of the 18- to 24-year-old demographic, which is considered one of the most important voting segments in the upcoming election.

“It (the straw poll) is to get USF students thinking about their choice for the presidency and let them weigh in,” said Susan A. MacManus, distinguished professor of political science and adviser to Pi Sigma Alpha, a political science honors society. “This time out, of course, there is a lot of emphasis on the youth vote. Both parties think it is very critical to win the election in November.”

The poll will feature a sample Scantron sheet ballot, allowing participants to choose which party they intend to vote for and how they will vote on the proposed tax amendment, which would change property tax exemptions and put a limit on how much homeowners owe. MacManus feels the poll is a great way to get students interested in the political scene before the actual elections come around.

“I think it is important because educated people can make a difference in America, and part of an education is civic leadership,” she said. “Students get to pick their favorites and realize that voting can be fun and that conversation about one’s political choices can be important, too.”

This is not the first time USF has conducted a straw poll. A poll conducted for the 2006 gubernatorial elections drew about 800 participants, MacManus said. Because of increased interest surrounding the 2008 presidential race, in which no incumbent is running for office, MacManus and the other sponsors are expecting a much larger turn out this year.

“I think the numbers will be higher,” said Misty Smith, a political science major and Pi Sigma Alpha member. “The election in 2004 saw a higher number turning out and I think the numbers will be a little bit higher this year. It’s the presidential election, so people are following it more closely because there is so much media coverage.”

Smith, who helped organize the straw poll in 2006, hopes the increased media attention surrounding the 2008 presidential race will spark the interest of the college-age demographic, which she feels has traditionally been apathetic when it comes to politics.

“When I did it last year, (I found) college students don’t really care about politics and (were) grossly uninformed,” Smith said. “It was very difficult to get any of them to participate and the ones who did participate ,generally didn’t even know who the candidates were, what the issues were and couldn’t read the ballots. It was disillusioning.”

MacManus said the amount of political interest exhibited by the college-age demographic is important to prevent politicians from overlooking the interests of younger voters.

“It’s important to prove to the politicians that college students care,” she said. “This is a way to let the politicians know, on both sides, that students are very interested and their vote is important and the candidates should pay attention to what the students are interested in.”

One element of this year’s straw poll that sponsors hope will increase participation is a greater number of volunteers and resources than the 2004 straw poll, thanks to the first-time involvement of the Honors College and Student Government. Honors College Director of Faculty Relations George H. Klein said that the college will be providing volunteers to man the poll sites around campus, which will remain open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Jan. 22.

“I think the single largest group will come from the Honors College,” he said. “When we had our organizational meeting that is very much what it looked like. At last meeting we had about 20 volunteers.”

The increased number of volunteers will also allow for a greater number of poll sites than the three or four that have traditionally been provided. With SG donating tables and the Honors College providing volunteers, MacManus hopes to have six or seven polling sites around the campus. Some locations mentioned as possible sites include the Marshall Center, Cooper Hall, the arts, business and engineering buildings.

With strong effort on the part of Pi Sigma Alpha, the Honors College and SG, along with the increased attention surrounding the 2008 elections, the sponsors are confident that the straw poll will help produce greater interest from the college demographic than in previous elections.

“It’s their future more than ours,” Kleine said. “In the past, college students have not been interested. This election promises for the first time in recent memory that we will see a change.”