College Democrats President Justin Galacki: "Students understand that there are a lot of important issues on the table."
Boston College students energized by the campaign of 2004
By Stephen Gawlik
Those who searched for meaningful trends and symbols in the 2004 election need have looked no further than the line of students mailing absentee ballots this past Friday at the Boston College branch of the US Postal Service in McElroy Commons.
As the day wore on, the line stretched almost all the way back to the Eagle's Nest, filled mainly by students seeking to get their ballots in the mail so they could be tallied for Tuesday's election.
Although the absentee ballot has long been a means for civic-minded undergraduates to cast their votes while away from their home district, analysts say the number of students choosing to do so in recent election years has been low.
But the story has been different for Election 2004, at least at BC.
"I don't remember anything like this in 2000," said clerk-in-charge Paul Wasnewsky, as he tossed another envelope containing an absentee ballot in the out-going mail bin. "They're coming in at more than one per minute, we can't even count how many there are. We weren't anticipating this at all.
"I'd be lying to you if I said that something wasn't different this year, because certainly something has changed," said Wasnewsky, who has worked at BC for five years. "It's been busier than Valentine's Day."
Boston College observers are inclined to agree with Wasnewsky. Predictions of a close election and a gamut of issues that made the presidential race especially relevant to students, they say, have brought more college-age voters to the political arena this year compared with other campaigns in recent memory.
"Students do seem more engaged this year," said Assoc. Prof. Dennis Hale (Political Science). "Both sides are claiming that this is the most important election of our lifetime, and although these are, of course, diametrically opposite claims, many on both sides believe that if the other guy gets elected it will be a catastrophe.
"This is enough to get lots of people up off their duffs to vote, even if it means applying for absentee ballots," said Hale.
Students such as Justin Galacki '06 and Max Buccini '06, presidents of College Democrats and College Republicans, respectively, did more than vote. The undergraduates served in the campaigns of their parties' presidential candidates this summer and coordinated campus activities in support of Bush and Kerry.
College Republicans President Max Buccini: "There is definitely a sweeping change on campus this year."
"We got to it as soon as school started in September," said Buccini, who received advice directly from top GOP political strategist Karl Rove, after having met him on the campaign trail earlier this fall.
"I said 'Mr. Rove, we're 62 days out [from Election Day]. What should we be doing?' He told me that we couldn't look at it that way as we were 34 days out from the voter registration deadlines and we had to sign up so many kids before then," said Buccini, a native of Weymouth.
Buccini rallied the College Republicans and got to work quickly knocking on doors, talking to students and signing them up to vote. Along the way, Buccini knew that his political adversary and classmate Galacki would be out there doing something similar.
"Basically it was my job to mobilize people to volunteer, get involved, make phone calls and arrange activities," said Galacki, a native of Whippany, NJ, who previously worked in Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry's Boston office, before accepting a paid summer position with the campaign.
Galacki and Buccini cited two political phenomena in 2004 that kept them both very busy this fall: The shifting demographics of New Hampshire and the rise of the college voter.
"New Hampshire is now a swing state," said Galacki, interviewed last week (the Granite State wound up going for Kerry). "That means we are constantly organizing buses and vans to make trips for events up there. It's in play and that means we have to react."
Said Buccini, "We're really not that far away from the action. Getting to New Hampshire and volunteering in some way for the Bush campaign has been crucial for our members. We can really make a difference in this race."
While organizing bus trips to New Hampshire may be one challenge, taking care of the swelling voter interest on campus was another.
"It's definitely been a good fall for us," said Galacki. "The interest in this race is surging. Students understand that there are a lot of important issues on the table."
Buccini agreed: "There is definitely a sweeping change on campus this year. To be fair, there have always been the students who are so into politics that they take their CNN and Fox News intravenously, but for the most part the issues in the past haven't interested most college students. This year it's the issues that are getting students out."
From Buccini's standpoint, it's the BC students in particular who seem to be getting out. In past years, he notes, Boston-area college students wanting to work for the GOP in New Hampshire would board the bus for campaign volunteers at Harvard University, which tended to have the most students participating.
"Because of our numbers, all of that changed this year," said Buccini. "BC is now the place to get the bus."
Hale generally agrees with the students' analysis, but is less sanguine than they are on the impact of voter registration drives on college-age participation.
"Voter registration drives take place all of the time, and they always get more people registered, but that is not the same thing as voting," said Hale, interviewed before Election Day. "This year, however, because of the war, and because of the intensity of feelings for and against the president, I think that college voting will increase - as will voting across the board."
Throughout the fall, BC administrators, faculty and organizations have helped spur interest in Campaign 2004 by sponsoring debates, lectures, discussions and other events on campus that focused on a different aspect of the election.
Last month, Hale was among BC students and Political Science faculty who gathered to watch the first presidential debate and followed it with a discussion.
"I was very impressed with the turnout for the event and by the thoughtful response of the students in the discussion after. Other election-related events have also been well attended, even in the face of competition from post-season baseball," said Hale.
BC has assisted students' participation in the election process in other ways. In early September, the Office of Student Services compiled an on-line list of voter registration information, including a spreadsheet of deadlines for each state, and sent e-mails to students directing them to this guide.
Hale says the 2004 election demonstrated that, along with the growing interest in political issues, the quality of discussion on campus is improving.
"Political debate on campus is becoming more two-sided - there are more thoughtful conservatives among the students than in previous years. And the administration has adopted a very sound policy in trying to encourage more open, public debate on political questions, which are still treated somewhat gingerly by many students and faculty."