By Dara Fennell and Paul Shade
INDIANA – College-student complaints about the Indiana area are common. But few bother to do anything about it. Like vote.
“As soon as I leave, I’m probably never coming back,” said Indiana University of Pennsylvania student Zachary W. Fish in a Feb. 28 interview at an Indiana home. “Why should I get to vote?”
Lori Rittle, an Indiana resident of 39 years, said many community members feel the same about the students.
“There are community people who feel that students are here, but not really engaged,” Rittle said in a Feb. 17 interview at her Grant Street home.
It is difficult to document student involvement from official records of registered voters, Rittle said. Many students live off campus and are mixed in with permanent residents.
Two of seven voting precincts in Indiana borough are heavily populated by students, according to IUP student Bridget J. Connolly, former head Indiana county field organizer for the 2008 Obama campaign. These two precincts, Indiana 3/1 and 3/2, have polling places on campus.
The Voter Activation Network, a voter-tracking database used by the county’s political parties, reported on Feb. 19 that more than half of registered voters in the two precincts were of college age. Of the precincts’ 4,392 voters, 2,344 of them – 53 percent — were ages 18-22.
Compared to the 14,638 students enrolled at IUP in 2009, according to the IUP Web site, these numbers may seem low. However, voter registration numbers do not include international students, students under age 18, or in-state or out-of-state students who have not transferred their voter registration to Indiana.
No information documents the number of students ineligible to vote in Indiana County for these reasons. But Connolly estimated that the number amounts to at least a couple thousand.
The numbers include what Rittle called “phantom voters” — students who registered to vote in the borough while they attended IUP but moved away. That makes student involvement look higher than it is, Rittle said.
For instance, in the 2009 local elections, registered voters in precincts 3/1 and 3/2 cast 70 and 290 ballots respectively, according to the unofficial records listed on the county Web site link. This makes for 3.61 percent voter turnout in precinct 3/1 and 9.87 percent in 3/2.
The turnout numbers suggest that not many students are involved in the political process. But Connolly and Rittle said small groups of students are highly involved in more prominent elections.
“The work done in the presidential campaign was amazing,” Rittle said when she spoke of the student involvement in the Obama campaign.
Often, this involvement leads to more cooperation and community between the students and the permanent residents, Brendan L. Kelley, a former political organizer for the Indiana County Obama campaign, said in a Feb. 16 email.
“One of the most rewarding parts of student organizing at IUP was watching relationships grow between students and community members,” said Kelley. “Political campaigns provide a great opportunity to foster local civic engagement and overcome the town-gown divide.”
That was 2008. A year later in the fall 2009 municipal elections, Rittle tried to regenerate student involvement.
“I tried last year,” she said. “But trying to get students involved is very difficult, even though they are impacted. It’s hard to get the general public interested in local politics, and students care even less.”
Connolly, the student and Obama organizer, offered advice about how to generate further cooperation between students and community members.
“For there to be student involvement there has to be outreach from some community entity,” Connolly said. “Students won’t seek it on their own. At the same time, students will have to step up and go to some local meetings.”
Former IUP College Democrats President Melissa E. Barry agreed.
“I think the community is well aware of the weight that IUP students pull when it comes to elections,” Barry in an AOL instant message interview on Feb. 19. “They make an effort to seek us out, and offer their services in exchange for ours.”
“I think it’s important,” said IUP student Kimberly R. Siverling in a Feb. 28 interview at her Indiana home. “But people don’t care, and that’s why we have crappy people in office.”
Dara Fennell, senior majoring in journalism and English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Fredericksburg, Va. She served as vice president of the IUP College Democrats and worked on behalf of the Obama campaign in 2008.
Paul Shade, a junior majoring in journalism and communications media at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from DuBois, Pa.
Student Voter Data
The following are the most recent data on the number of traditional student-age voters in
Indiana County precincts 3/1 and 3/2.
Precinct Total Voters Voters 18-22 %/ Total Voters
Indiana 3/1 1711 761 44.8
Indiana 3/2 2681 1577 55.8
Source: Voter Activation Network – Feb. 19, 2010
For More Information/To Get Involved
For more information about this story, or to get involved, contact the following sources:
Indiana County Board of Elections and Voter Registration
Debra L. Streams
Director, Voter Registration
825 Philadelphia St.
Indiana, Pa. 15701
Phone: (724) 465-3852
Republican Committee of Indiana Township
Mark Bursic, chairman
Louis Neubert, vice chairman
Indiana County Democratic Committee
Tammie Shetler, chair
Ron Fairman, vice chair
Lori Rittle, secretary
P.O. Box 315
Indiana, Pa. 15701
IUP College Republicans
Bradley Hoover, president
Joseph Marcoline, Ph.D.
Professional Studies Department
311 Davis Hall
IUP College Democrats
Julie Ventura, president
Gwen Torges, Ph.D.
Political Science Department
103E Keith Annex,
David Chambers, Ph.D.
Political Science Department
Advisor, Political Science,
105 Keith Annex