The first of the 2004 presidential debates will be held on the UM campus, after the Commission on Presidential Debates [CPD] chose UM over 13 other applicants thanks in part to a joint effort between the University and local and state government officials.
“We got the first one,” announced President Donna E. Shalala to an audience of over 100 students at the Rathskeller during a Get Out the Vote initiative to register students to vote. “This is the result of a team effort that will benefit the entire community.”
“This decision has shown that we’re not only on the map in terms of academics and athletics, but we’ve also been recognized as a university that promotes the democratic process,” Dr. Pat Whitely, vice president for student affairs, said.
Shalala said that Florida legislators and local political leaders sent out letters and voiced their support for UM, proving instrumental throughout the decision-making process. She also thanked the efforts of Student Government to increase political activism on campus and the political coverage of the The Miami Hurricane.
“We sent out copies of certain issues of the paper to the CPD,” Shalala said. “It actually helped.”
According to Paul G. Kirk Jr., commission co-chairman, UM was chosen because of the enthusiasm of its students, staff and administration and because it met all of the logistical requirements set forth by the CPD. Location and diversity also played a key role.
Washington University and Arizona State were selected to host the second and third debates, respectively. Case Western Reserve University will host the vice presidential debate.
Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of South Carolina were selected as back-up sites.
Shalala said she had been working toward this for over two years.
“Before I left Washington I asked the CPD what we had to do to get the debates,” Shalala said. “We had every aspect of it covered.”
According to Shalala, hotel accommodations, safety and security plans and issues of space for the media were all planned out by the University before the CPD made its final decision.
UM administration said they will be creating educational programs focusing on the presidential campaign and debates to educate students on the democratic process.
“This will be an educational experience,” Shalala said.
Get Out the Vote organizers hope that hosting the debate will encourage students to become involved politically. According to them, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas has officially announced that the Convocation Center will be used as a voting precinct for the upcoming elections.
“With the convenience of being able to vote on campus, there’s no excuse why any student shouldn’t vote,” Mike Johnston, director for Get Out the Vote, said.
Johnston also added that there will be virtually no lines, since the Convocation Center comprises such a large area.
Pamela Schiess, director of registration for Get Out the Vote, highlighted some of the misconceptions that students may have regarding voter registration eligibility.
“There’s a lot of in-state loyalty on this campus,” Schiess said. “The message we’re trying to get out is that Miami is our new home for a significant amount of time, and the decisions made in this community will affect students for a long time.”
Schiess also said that registering to vote is a transient process and that students can register in Miami-Dade county and then re-register at home if they move back.
David McCombie, president of the UM Council for Democracy, said that the CPD’s decision will benefit UM’s reputation.
“I think the country will realize that UM is an involved political university that not only cares about politics but tries to actively shape it,” McCombie said. “Our students take an active role in our future instead of being passive observers.”
McCombie added that he believes UM’s location and diversity were key factors in the final decision.
“This student body has a diversity that isn’t found in many other colleges and universities in the nation,” McCombie said. “We’re also located in Florida, which is always a pivotal state during elections.”
Some express concerns, however, that most college students are not interested in politics.
“I think students are not as involved as they should be because a lot of them don’t know what it means to be Democratic or Republican,” said Claudia Sanchez, junior and Student Government member.
Sanchez said she feels that the Get Out the Vote campaign and the political student organizations on campus have helped to promote political involvement.
“I see lots of flyers around campus encouraging students to get involved,” Sanchez said.
Others believe hosting the debate will make students aware of the political power they have.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Blake Harris, junior and member of the UM Republicans. “You have to be politically aware in order to understand the options that you’re presented with and be able to make a difference.”
Milton Collins, deputy supervisor of elections for Miami-Dade County, wants college students to be aware of specific instances in history in which one vote made a difference. He mentioned that in 1776, English beat out German as the official language of the U.S. by one vote and that in 1845, Texas became the twentieth state by the same margin.
“As American citizens we’re so fortunate to be here in a democracy,” Collins said. “It’s so very important that one not only registers to vote but actually participates.”
Shalala said she is looking forward to the presidential debate and that students should be sharing in the excitement.
“Everyone will be watching this on television live from the UM campus,” Shalala said. “There will be reporters and media all over campus.”
“A piece of history will be held right here on the UM campus,” Shalala said.
The first presidential debate is scheduled for Sept. 30 at 9 p.m. in the UM Convocation Center. For more information on the presidential debates, go to the Commission on Presidential Debates website at www.debates.org.
Jorge Arauz can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.