rally at the University of Arizona

(WOMENSENEWS)–Walking dorm-to-dorm and door-to-door for the past few months, Elizabeth Harless has been reminding her fellow students at West Virginia University about the history of the women’s suffrage movement and persuading them to register and vote.

Unlike the last presidential election, Harless said, the atmosphere on campus has been politically charged and female students are keen to have their voices heard.

“This election is so much different than last time. The difference is just amazing,” said Harless, 26.

“There are so many signs up and people are engaged with the campaign . . . I think people are realizing their vote counts and they want to get involved in the process, especially when you tell them the last election was decided by 537 votes. It really seems to strike a nerve.”

Armed with a clipboard and civic fervor, activists like Harless formed part of an extensive, unprecedented campaign by a myriad of women’s organizations to get women to the voting booth in large numbers.

Judging by the long lines at polling places across the country yesterday and initial turnout estimates, the effort appears to have achieved stunning results with a record turnout among female voters, with 9 percent casting votes for John Kerry, approximately the same percentage that voted for Al Gore in 2000.

Campus Activists

Harless is one of dozens of campus activists sponsored by the Feminist Majority Foundation’s national “Get Out Her Vote” campaign, which sought to bring more young women to the polls and enhance women’s influence in the political process.

At campuses in battleground states from Nevada to Michigan, female volunteers have shown the film “Iron Jawed Angels” about the suffrage movement, invited celebrities such as Amy Brenneman and Sheryl Crow to promote their cause, lectured to classes in women’s studies departments, organized concerts, hung banners from student unions, posted fliers and sold T-shirts with the slogan: “Vote As If Your Life Depended on It.”

Preliminary figures indicate the initiative has registered several thousand voters in crucial swing states, a potentially pivotal number in a tight election race.

Other determined efforts by a myriad of women’s and progressive organizations
–combined with an election that has sparked intense public interest and debate–appear to have produced record-shattering numbers of female voters this year, organizers and pollsters say.

While the Bush campaign focused on married women, the Democratic National Committee and progressive groups sought out the 22 million unmarried women who did not vote in the 2000 election. Polls conducted in 2003 made clear that if single women voted at the same rate as married women, Gore would have won by a clear margin. The mobilization drive gained momentum with the March for Women’s Lives on April 25, when a million women turned out to rally in support of reproductive rights in Washington, D.C.

Unmarried women, Latino women, African American women, Native American women, pro-choice women and grandmothers were all targeted for extensive registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns by organizations such as the National Organization for Women, New York City-based The White House Project, the Washington, D.C.-based Women’s Voices. Women Vote, NARAL Pro-Choice America, GrannyVoter and others. In some cases, these women were being recruited and spoken to for the first time, having been ignored or overlooked in previous voter outreach initiatives, according to NOW’s Kim Gandy.

College campuses provided just one aspect of the larger campaign and the positive response seemed to indicate this election year could turn out a historic result. Young voters, and particularly young women, tend to be more liberal on social issues than older voters and overwhelmingly supportive of women’s reproductive rights. Organizers realized that a record-breaking turnout among young women along with a politically engaged core of new activists could have lasting effects on the political climate.

Attention to Young People’s Issues

“I think this election has been a watershed, not a one-time up tick in student participation,” said Katherine Spillar, executive vice-president of the Los Angeles-based Feminist Majority Foundation. “Candidates are going to have to start talking about issues that young people care about. They can’t just talk about Social Security.”

Political campaigns have ignored young voters in the past because turnout has been so dismal among 18-to-24 year olds. Only about 32 percent from that age group bothered to vote in the last election, a record low. This year, preliminary polls and anecdotal evidence indicate turnout could be as high as 60 percent and possibly higher among college students, Spillar and others said.

At Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, this fall, female volunteers helped register over the half the student body 1,450 in one day. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, students have been standing in long lines outside city hall for the past week to cast early ballots, according to Candice Lopez, an organizer with Get Out Her Vote.

At the University of Arizona in Tucson, female activists stood their ground in September against attempts to discourage students from voting on campus. Pima county officials were forced to retract statements that inaccurately suggested that students would be committing a felony if they tried to register in Tucson. And the local affiliate of New York-based Fox News apologized to the Feminist Majority Foundation for a misleading report quoting the registrar’s office.

Campus organizers said county officials and university administrators in most states tend to discourage student voters by their silence and inaction, failing to provide adequate information on voter registration and polling places.

“All too often college administrators are part of the problem,” Spillar said. “I think students have been very awakened to attempts to suppress their vote
. . . The thing that is different this time is that they’re fighting back.”

To reassure students that they don’t have to vote where their parents live, volunteers have distributed “voter bill of rights” cards that explain to students their rights as voters and provide an emergency phone number if problems arise at the polling place.

Supervising Campus Hotlines

In between her voter interviews yesterday on the sidewalks of Morgantown, W. Va., Elizabeth Harless helped supervise volunteers handling a telephone hotline for students searching for their polling place and oversaw poll monitors checking to ensure young voters were able to cast their ballots without obstruction.

Harless, who is majoring in women’s studies, said she has relished the chance to hear students’ opinions during the registration drive. She plans to earn a master’s degree in political science and eventually run for political office because she said too many women “still feel they haven’t been invited to the table.”

Earlier this year, she won her first campaign.

When the local movie theater decided not to show Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9-11,” Harless and other students protested and made plans to have the film shown free-of-charge on campus. The cinema owner eventually backed down and showed the film for three weeks to sold-out audiences.

Like most of the campus organizers, Harless’s concern about threats to women’s reproductive rights drew her into the political arena. She was recruited from the March for Women’s Lives which attracted many women under the age of 30.

Thousands of young women who attended the march have been working with Get Out Her Vote and other organizations to register fellow students. Their volunteer work may have had a decisive influence not only on this election, but for many elections to come.

Dan De Luce was the correspondent for The Guardian in Iran until he was ordered by the authorities Tehran to leave earlier this year. Prior to that, he worked for Reuters during and after the conflict in former Yugoslavia and for the international administration in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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