A number of Bemidji State University students, realizing that the general election is but five weeks away, registered to vote Tuesday, aided by Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.
Ritchie, a Democrat, brought his nonpartisan Get Out the Vote effort to BSU on Tuesday as part of a statewide tour of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system schools.
"The thing I'm discovering is that people are waking up, saying, 'Oh, there's an election'," Ritchie said in an interview. "Yes, it's not a presidential year and there's no (U.S.) Senate race, but they all are thinking about what are the things that get decided in an election that affects their lives."
That includes tuition, Ritchie said, and investment in higher education by the state, jobs and the economy.
"There's an awareness that the election actually has some material impact on lives, so we've had really good turnout," he said.
He's running a contest between MnSCU institutions on the number of students they register and the percent of the student population that is registered. He visited East Grand Forks last week, Bemidji on Tuesday, and today will be in Duluth, Hibbing and Virginia.
Registering are first-time voters at age 18, students who moved and need to re-register, and some are deciding whether to vote where they are going to school or vote absentee from where their parents live.
"Having tables and having the Student Senate really carrying the message both makes people aware that elections are coming, makes them aware how and why they're important and then helps make sure that young people who never voted get welcomed into the process, and those who have, have the information they need," Ritchie said.
Youth turned out in droves to register and vote in 2008, a presidential election year that saw Democrat Barack Obama defeat Republican John McCain. This year, the big draw is the governor's election. Plus a new system that saw the primary election moved up to August.
"We were really surprised in the primary election," Ritchie said. "We had predicted a 10 to 12 percent increase, we had 16. We predicted 20,000 absentee voters, we had 31,000."
Registrations spike in presidential years because of the millions both parties spend on GOTV efforts, he said. "But we're going to have a good, strong turnout and I think Minnesota's going to keep its No. 1 position, although we don't have a Senate race."
Ritchie believes the state is attracting new residents. "Some of them are, of course, students who come here for our excellent higher education. Some are turning 18 so they're new. And some are folks who, in this economy, have moved to Minnesota to take advantage of the economy and the opportunities that are here relative to the opportunities where they are."
The jury's out, he says, whether there is an ongoing trend. In the last three election cycles, the percent of young adults has steadily increased.
Ritchie said his conventional wisdom has been shaken over is that young adults face a different set of barriers that older voters didn't face.
"Young people are typically the largest percent in our military service and face all kinds of obstacles," he said. "We've been working hard on that and made a lot of success, but that's one."
Young people also tend to have apartments and move often. "Just keeping up with them when they move, with materials or candidate materials, the things that stimulate you to vote" are an obstacle.
"Sometimes they're at school and the issues such as proof of residence and all the things that might be required in some voting situations," he said. "Typically, they're working a couple of different jobs to make ends meet and just busy moving around."
Ritchie says young people still need that "extra welcoming" and the Secretary of State's Office is now working with some high schools.
"Some schools are thinking about when you vote for homecoming king and queen, using the same election equipment so young people wouldn't feel like there was something that they'd know, because you don't want to look foolish," he said.
"I've come to think that young people probably are near the same interests in terms of being idealistic or being interested, but they have faced some extra barriers."
Society needs to recognize that young adults are busy, Ritchie said. "You can see they're stressed in terms of their busyness. That busyness, some of us adjust to it as a lifelong condition and we still make it to vote or maybe we vote absentee if we're going to be out of the precinct."
The office created a new online tool where people can check of they even are registered, to save them time in lines.
New this year is an online absentee ballot tracking tool which will allow voters to check where their ballot is at any given time.
He encourages southern Minnesota residents who have mailed their absentee ballots to make sure they got into the system from flooded cities, where floods may have carried away there.
"We use that tool as an online polling place look-up to find out not only where you vote but also it has a picture or PDF of the sample ballot of your exact ballot and hotlinks to all the different candidates," he said. "Young people are much more oriented to the Internet, so the more tools we provide ..."
A number of states have moved ahead of Minnesota by offering online voter registration. "We need to be moving in that direction," Ritchie said. There is national legislation to make online voter registration possible nationwide.
"It's the kind of thing where we need to be orienting ourselves to the lives that young voters and to the tools that they make use of, and then we need to do a good job of shaping our systems to help," Ritchie said. "Once they start, they're on their way to being a lifelong voter."
A special program allows 16- and 17-year-olds to be election judge trainees, doing most work of the election judges except where two-party help is needed, such as helping a voter in their car who can't walk to the polling place. Then, both a Republican and a Democrat judge help with the ballot.
"They can't vote, but they can work at the polls," Ritchie said. "We discover they've become hooked. They become ambassadors for voting."
At BSU, the Student Senate is asking new registrants to sign a pledge that they will vote, and that a Student Senate member will call them the day before to remind them to vote.