For activists seeking to improve turnout among young voters, giving college students the right to vote in an upcoming City Council election turned out to be easy. Getting students to actually use that right, however, may not be.
Groups like the League of Young Voters were outraged last week, when City Council President Luke Ravenstahl initially chose March 7 as the date for a special election to replace former City Councilor Gene Ricciardi. Ricciardi's district includes two neighborhoods heavily populated with college students: the South Side and much of Oakland, including the University of Pittsburgh's massive Litchfield Towers dormitory complex. March 7 fell in the middle of Pitt's March 5-12 Spring Break, as well as that of Duquesne University, making participation by students unlikely.
The timing was widely seen to benefit candidate Jeffrey Koch, a Democratic committeeperson and a city employee from Allentown, who is assumed to be the Democratic Party's pick, not necessarily that of the student voter.
"I'd caution Grant Street politicians not to get too involved in this race," says Bruce Kraus, one of six candidates opposing Koch.
Ravenstahl has denied any such motive, and after the outcry, he changed the date to March 14. A protest that activists had planned for Jan. 12 in Oakland was hurriedly recast as a celebratory rally, and the mood was forgiving -- for the most part.
"There's no reason for a councilor for Brighton Heights to know when Pitt was off," League of Young Voters regional director Khari Mosely said at the rally.
Jason Phillips, a Green Party candidate for the council seat, said that because the date had been changed, "I'm not going to worry about the past." (After some grade-school needling by a City Paper reporter, however, Phillips appended his remarks: "What do you want me to say? That [Ravenstahl's initial date] was a silent endorsement for a yes-man candidate who couldn't win a vote in Oakland?")
So students can vote after all. But will they?
Some candidates are dubious. "I'm glad the students at least have the chance to vote," says Eileen Conroy, a former district justice from Oakland. "But traditionally, students don't come out to vote unless it's in a presidential campaign."
The numbers bear Conroy out. In the precinct that encompasses Litchfield Towers, more than 1,500 votes were cast in the Nov. 2004 presidential race. But barely more than 400 were cast in the governor's race two years before -- and only three dozen voters turned out in last November's general election.
Mosley hopes to improve on that dismal record. The League of Young Voters has registered 100 college students to vote as of Jan. 13, he says, and hopes to register 900 more in time to vote for Ricciardi's replacement.
But reformers take note: Those 1,000 votes may be divided among a half-dozen candidates styling themselves as the anti-Koch, anti-machine choice. "I've talked to almost all of the candidates to try to resolve that issue," says City Councilor Bill Peduto, who has made youth empowerment a linchpin of his own political ambitions. While Peduto says he hopes to endorse someone in the race, "I don't have a candidate yet."