Reality stars Veronica Portillo and Syrus Yarbrough, of MTV’s “Road Rules” and “Real World,” appeared at Quinnipiac last Saturday to encourage voter activism and education, in conjunction with the nationwide Rock the Vote initiative.
The free event, open to students and members of the general public, was held in Alumni Hall and co-sponsored by the Student Programming Board and Student Government Association.
SGA teamed with Erin Rosa, SPB’s Vice President of Programming, and Christine King, Lecture Chair for SPB, to put on the event, and concluded a voter registration drive that successfully registered 150 students throughout the previous week.
According to Meghan Viveiros, SGA junior class representative, students are still encouraged to register before the Oct. 8 deadline for the processing of paperwork at Hamden town hall.
“We are focused on finding ways to inform students about proper voter registration procedures and issue-based voting,” Viveiros said.
“We are hoping that this election may spark some political activism and discussion amongst the student body. Statistically, only 25 percent of university students exercise their right to vote. It would be fantastic if our University could have a small, yet significant hand in bettering this statistic,” she said.
Such issue-based voting was a key point in Saturday’s lecture, with Portillo and Yarbrough holding a question and answer forum on topics including felony voting, abortion, gay marriage and the war in Iraq.
Politically active students were encouraged to speak their minds in front of the audience, and while mainly liberal, the audience provided for a strong discussion.
Portillo hoped the discussion would spark more of a two-sided debate, but recognized her necessary impartiality in hosting the event.
“The way we discuss things here is we open it up as a platform for everyone to discuss. If I come in here and I talk in favor of one candidate, people judge me for that so I have to open up the audience to share their opinions,” Portillo said.
“If there was a more of variety of people here, there would have been a more heated debate but we didn’t get to hear from the other side because there weren’t that many people here that represented the Conservatives,” she told The Chronicle after the lecture.
One student in attendance, QU junior Mitch Raymond, was happy with the students who had the courage to speak their mind, and felt the atmosphere lent itself well to a debate. ” I did not see the event as a lecture, I saw it as an informative, host guided community debate because of how many views were shared from several different sides. It wasn’t all Syrus and Veronica talking up there,” Raymond said. “I was really proud of everyone who was motivated to speak out on the issues of the debate, whether their views were opinionated, culture bound, or well informed.”
Students were encouraged to select a few issues that really matter to them, and research the candidates’ stand on the issue, so to make a more informed decision on Election Day.
Yarbrough, who said the 2004 presidential election will be his first time out to the polls, told those in attendance to research facts for themselves, rather than simply trust national media outlets.
“Don’t get sucked in because you see (certain things) on TV. (The mass media) is a business. You’re being manipulated a lot of times. It’s the politicians’ job to get your vote. Don’t be naive. Find out for yourself,” Yarbrough said, citing online news outlets and the New York Times as reliable ways to become a more educated voter.
“I think that (students) need to understand that they have a responsibility in our society to vote. Our country does not act, does not function like a democracy if they don’t actually put in their vote because that takes out a whole generation. A whole generation is not represented by our policies in government.”
“I really think that they need to learn as much as possible. Understand that they’re entitled to have their own opinion, that they don’t have to vote for what their parents vote or vote for what their friends vote but they really need to research the issues that are most relevant to them and if they don’t have time to research every issue, at least research the issues that are relevant to them,” Portillo added.
While subjects like abortion and the war in Iraq elicited a more vocal audience response, Portillo and Yarbrough also informed students on the issue of felony voting. Portillo explained that 14 states do not allow felons to vote, and because a better portion of that demographic is minorities, a large percentage of voters are eliminated from helping decide our country’s future.
In the 2000 election, where Florida was the deciding election factor, 17,000 people were taken off voter registration lists, with the majority of that number accounting for black voters.
Portillo was encouraged to learn that Connecticut took a step in restoring those voter rights, as the state enacted legislation, taking effect in 2002, where convicted felons who were on probation could vote in an election.
Another topic that got the crowd vocal was the war in Iraq, and the possible reinstatement of the draft. When talk turned to the United Nations, weapons of mass destruction and Osama bin Laden, Yarbrough reminded them that the war is something that simply cannot be ignored.
“If the draft comes back, that is a reality. A lot of (us) may go to war. It’s a scary thing. (Government officials) don’t care if you’re a student or not. I think it’s a topic you need to think about,” he said.
“I don’t condone the war but I think we need to accept (it as a reality).”
The emcees balanced the ninety minute lecture by helping students understand (presidential candidates) Bush and Kerry’s viewpoints on the issues discussed, all in hopes of leading them to make more informed voting decisions.
While fielding audience questions, Yarbrough stressed the importance of voting for your own satisfaction, rather than because voting is the ‘trendy’ thing to do.
“You have a bunch of 65-year-olds making decisions for you. The way you (change that) is to vote,” he said.
While Yarbrough applauded the efforts of the Rock the Vote initiative, he realized that it is a voter’s responsibility to understand the true motive behind the program.
In recent years, MTV has been instrumental in the program, begun in 1990 by members of the recording industry to fight for the freedom of expression and to increase voter activism and education.
Yarbrough became involved in the program in 2000 following his six month stint on the Boston season of “The Real World,” and traveled “guerrilla-style” to college campuses with MTV personalities like Carson Daly and Kurt Loder to register student voters.
“(The Rock the Vote program makes) it cool for our generation. They really emphasize the fact that politics aren’t for older people, aren’t for bookworms….that we should really have a voice. The hype that this election is getting, they’re really influencing people to vote. We need to have representation in our country. We don’t have it right now,” Portillo said.
“The first thing I did when I went to college was register to vote. I thought it was the cool thing to do, then I didn’t vote. I had the opportunity to vote but I chose not to. I think it was really selfish of me not to care about our country,” she said.
The lecture concluded with audience questions about the cast members’ time on various MTV reality programs along with a meet and greet session. Following the lecture, Yarbrough expressed to The Chronicle his ultimate goal for student voters participating in the upcoming election.
“You need to stand for something in your body. (Adults) look at the young people today and they want to say that you have a chance to be anything you want to be but they don’t push the issue of you having to be a model citizen on the voting and political end of it,” Yarbrough said.
“And that’s what we’re here to do, to educate, get you to open your minds, broaden your horizons and step beyond yourself and do something about your country. Be a part of something. Don’t be lazy on Nov. 2.”