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Political Interest Grows at MIT

By Jiao Wang

STAFF REPORTER

Last year, you could have seen a recent MIT graduate walking through a dormitory, knocking on door after door to tell his former classmates that if he were elected to the Cambridge City Council, he would improve local traffic enforcement, increase the number of affordable housing options, and keep Cambridge stores open later.

With minimal political experience, little money, and a transient political base, Matthew S. DeBergalis ’00, managed to change the political landscape in the 2003 Cambridge City Council election. The election ended with him just 137 votes shy of winning a seat and with more first-place votes than two of the incumbents who did win seats.

DeBergalis’ run brought with it a strong growth in students for local politics that has brought noticeable City Council attention to student issues.

Now this year’s election season has seen an unprecedented student effort at MIT to register classmates to vote and to increase election awareness, which, with the effects of DeBergalis’ run, mark an upward climb of student interest in politics.

Groups work to get out the vote

This year, for the first time, the Graduate Student Council, Undergraduate Association, and various student organizations have come together to register voters and increase awareness of election issues.

Barun Singh G, president of the GSC, said that through this collaboration, he hopes to “reach all students at MIT” and “combat apathy” on campus.

During the past few weeks, both faculty and students have been involved in panel discussions and debates about election issues, watching the Lecture Series Committee’s showings of “Fahrenheit 9/11”, attending the national presidential debate watches in the Student Center, and attending lectures about the American voting system.

Voting registration took place during graduate student orientation, on registration day, and throughout the past few weeks in Lobby 10. Registration forms can still be picked up in the Public Service Center.

UA Senate Speaker Rose A. Grabowski ’05 said that over 350 voter registration forms have been submitted through events on campus. Singh said that they have also distributed absentee ballot forms and Web site information to over 600 students at these events.

On Friday, Sept. 24, 2004, MTV’s Rock the Vote came to Kresge Oval and offered free lunch and music and dance lessons to students to try to use pop culture to encourage students to think about voting. Event staff handed out voting information, such as registration deadlines, absentee ballots, and election event calenders. The event was sponsored by fifteen MIT organizations, including the UA and the GSC.

Jill E. Soucy, assistant director of the Public Service Center, said that this is the first time she has seen so many students involved in voter registration.

The surge in MIT participation is only part of a nationwide resurgence of interest in politics and in the outcome of the presidential election.

Democratic supporters who usually do not vote feel that the last presidential election was stolen from them and they can not let it happen again, said Political Science Professor Charles Stewart III, while President George W. Bush’s core supporters believe that he is “a man on a mission” who must be allowed to continue his work.

Whatever the reason, the extra hours students have put in and the results they are seeing are a testimony to the attention the presidential election is receiving.

Efforts make impact in Cambridge

DeBergalis emerged in 2003 as the advocate for students, recent graduates, and young professionals. His campaign used innovative methods of getting people out to vote, such as sending election day cell phone messages to 426 students who had “pledged” their votes to him.

Although all the City Council incumbents managed to retain their seats, DeBergalis’ campaign brought attention to some issues that particularly affect students. For example, there are now more safety precautions around Harvard Square and Cambridge Common than there were two years ago.

DeBergalis predicts that there will be more political mailings to students when the 2005 Cambridge City Council race comes around, now that their voting power has been recognized.

He declined to comment on whether he plans to run for office again.