Expectations have been high for Voice Your Vote, the voter registration arm of the Michigan Student Assembly, since its successful 2004 registration campaign. Last year’s extensive recruiting efforts had borne fruit: After months of careful planning, Voice Your Vote registered 10,000 new voters. In contrast, for last week’s City Council elections, the organization registered just 80 student voters. While it’s easy to dismiss low voter turnout during off-year elections, a time when students often turn deaf ears to local politics, this year’s dismal registration results have as much to do with institutional failure as they do with student apathy. In fact, Voice Your Vote registered under a fifth as many students last week as it did in the fall of 2003, the last odd-year election. The system needs retooling, and if MSA is going to play a role in turning out student voters, it should be a consistent and effective one. Before next year’s elections, MSA should restructure Voice Your Vote to include permanent staff, making it an enduring and effective mobilizing force on campus.
Questions as to whether the well of student interest in city politics was dry were dismissed last week, when the College Democrats reported registering 200 new voters – more than twice as many as Voice Your Vote. While a great deal of campus is (and will remain) detached from local politics, a number of students have shown signs of interest. For these students, the problem isn’t a lack of enthusiasm, it’s a lack of guidance.
The body’s ineptitude can be partly attributed to the untimely formation of this year’s commission. Voice Your Vote Co-Chair Matthew Schopfer said the half-dozen students slated to coordinate the campaign weren’t selected until “about two weeks before the registration deadline.” Not surprisingly, the committee’s rushed organization proved detrimental to its outreach efforts. Voice Your Vote’s canvassing drives only reached two residence halls, South Quadrangle and Mary Markley, and never once made it to the Diag.
Scrambling for assistance, Voice Your Vote turned to the College Democrats for campaign support. This, of course, raised red flags, even among some members of the College Democrats. How Voice Your Vote thought it could at once maintain credibility as an impartial institution and allow a group with explicitly partisan ends to carry out its registration drives is puzzling. Even more disturbing is the fact that such a glaring conflict of interest was first brought up by the College Democrats. But perhaps most troubling was Voice Your Vote’s failure to assist the College Democrats in its registration campaign on the Diag, even after soliciting their support.
A chief problem for Voice Your Vote is a constant turnover in leadership. When committee leaders graduate, they often leave behind a shortage of staff and a chaotic organizational structure. New organizers spend valuable time retooling and recruiting and often have a narrow window of time for registration drives. Institutionalizing Voice Your Vote would help cement its staff structure, as well as any registration tactics found to be effective. A permanent salary should be set aside for a nonstudent chairman, hired by the administration as a professional coordinator. MSA should also move appointments of other committee members to the end of winter term, allowing the summer to serve as planning time for immediate action in the fall.
MSA has shown an increasing interest in Ann Arbor politics and has encouraged students to follow in its path. But before it tackles student apathy, MSA has to address some of its own inadequacies. Voice Your Vote was dealt an extremely important mandate but no structural stability to fulfill it. Only as a permanently integrated institution will Voice Your Vote have a lasting impact on the electoral process, both in even and odd years.