By Besty Cohen
Published April 29th 2008 in Missoulian News
If University of Montana students have their way, theirs could be the first college campus in the nation that lets students register to vote at the same time they register for classes.
On Monday, student government leaders will ask UM's top administrators to partner with Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that engages young people in the political process.
Provided the idea gets the green light, here's how it would work, according to Dustin Leftridge, president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana: When students go to Cyberbear, the Internet site where UM students register for classes, they will also find Rock the Vote's widget - an online registration tool. When students click on the icon that says “Register to Vote,” a one-page voter registration form will pop up, asking which state they want to be registered in.
Once the information is completed, it is a legal registration form ready for printing. When the document is printed, it comes with directions on how and where to mail the form.
The widget isn't anything new to ASUM, which has had the free tool on its Web site since last fall, but it didn't get a lot of traffic, Leftridge said.
While pondering how to raise the tool's profile, Leftridge was approached by Matt Singer, CEO of Forward Montana, a Missoula nonprofit that is also dedicated to engaging young people politically.
Singer's suggested attaching the widget to Cyberbear.
“The whole idea is to make it easy for students to have a centralized place to go to register,” Singer said. “Students go to Cyberbear and Rock the Vote's tool makes it easy.”
Although he's the one who took the idea to ASUM, putting the widget up on Cyberbear originated from Alex Gosline, a UM student Singer met while interviewing students for internships at Forward Montana.
Singer got behind the concept because it made a lot of sense.
“It struck me that UM would be a good testing ground, that this kind of thing has a great level of civic involvement and UM administration has been very supportive of that kind of thing in the past,” he said.
If Monday's presentation goes smoothly, and everything falls into place, Leftridge and Singer said they'd like to have the widget up and running on April 14, when UM students begin registering for fall semester courses.
“We'd love to have the tool available for students in this next registration period because the primary election is going to be a huge event here,” Singer said. “We want to make sure students and young people are involved and we want to make sure students are registered in advance.”
Getting young voters to register isn't just a good idea, Singer said. Recent history proves young Montana voters are critical to who gets elected to office.
“Here in Montana one of the little known facts about elections in '04 and '06 is that there were more voters under the age of 30 than over the age of 65, which is our way of saying young voters are already an important voting block in Montana,” he said. “Our vote matters.
“Montana decided the fate of the United States Senate, and we may end up deciding who is president this time. That's a lot of power and it's a big opportunity for our state - and students definitely need to be a part of that.”
Since Rock the Vote launched its registration widget in July, more than 750,000 people have downloaded voter registration forms from its Web site, said Chrissy Faessen, media contact for the Washington, D.C., nonprofit.
“It's an excellent tool, and it is a great idea if the University of Montana made it accessible during online registration for classes,” she said. “No one is doing that yet that I know of. It's a good idea.”
If it were to happen, Rock the Vote would be ever-closer to its ultimate goal, Faessen said.
“Our goal is to register 2 million young voters,” she said. “And not only to get them registered, but to turn out to the polls and support candidates in record numbers.”
After UM's executive officers hear about the tool for the first time on Monday, Leftridge said he expects the matter will be mulled over for a few days before a definitive answer is reached.
“I look forward to the conversation,” said Jim Foley, UM's executive vice president. “On this campus and in this state, there hasn't been this much focus on the presidential election since the 1960s, and we should think about how best to connect to and involve young people.”
To learn more about Rock the Vote, log on to www.rockthevote.org. To navigate Rock the Vote's voter registration widget on the Associated Students of the University of Montana Web site, log on to www.umt.edu/ asum/reg_vote.htm.
Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.