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CLEVELAND, Tenn. —With music pumping, balloons and banners, the voter registration drive at Lee University was as much party as politics.
But at campuses across the state and the nation, there's serious work going on to get young people signed up to register and vote ahead, said Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, who visited colleges in Chattanooga, Bradley County and elsewhere on Friday as part of National Voter Registration month. Voter registration drives are being held on some 40 campuses statewide in conjunction with the #GoVoteTN social media campaign, according to Hargett's office.
"We really feel like it's important, especially for this generation of voters, who has been — in so many ways — disengaged," said Hargett during a reception at Lee. "If we are going to have a great future for this country and solve problems across this nation, we have to get this generation engaged."
He mentioned a student he met on another campus who told Hargett he didn't "do politics."
"Make no mistake about it," Hargett said. "You can say you don't do politics, but politics will be done to you."
The Lee event kicked off in a jubilant atmosphere, with a steady stream of students lining up at registration tables. It will continue today and run through Tuesday, school officials said.
"We're definitely excited that we get to be involved, that we get to help out in some kind of way to encourage people to use their voice," said Indyasia Johnson, head of the sponsoring Student Leadership Council.
Altogether, Hargett visited 17 Tennessee campuses to promote #GoVote TN. At Chattanooga State, more than 300 students registered to vote.
Before becoming secretary of state in 2009, Hargett served in the Tennessee House for 10 years as a Republican representative. But his message on the campuses he toured was nonpartisan.
At Motlow State in Middle Tennessee, he said the best way to hold elected officials accountable is at the ballot box.polls here 3351
"This generation tends to be silent at the ballot box," he told The Tullahoma News. " We can't make them go vote. You're going to hear us encouraging people throughout the state to go out and vote in March, August and November."
Blake Kitterman, president of the Young Democrats of Bradley County and president of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Freshman Senate, praised the voter drives and Hargett's campus tours.
"I think it's great that he is getting out to colleges," said Kitterman, who voiced disappointment at voter turnout during the 2014 election cycle. Turnout across the region was less than 40 percent.
The Scripps Howard Foundation reported that millennials — ages 18-34 — outnumber baby boomers, who are 51-59.
A foundation report said millennials represent the largest generational group in the U.S., with 75.3 million, compared to 74.9 million boomers. But only 21 percent of millennials voted in the 2014 midterm elections.
Both Republicans and Democrats would like to harness those untapped numbers for their candidates, and a number of think tanks are working to measure millennials' attitudes and beliefs.
The online Independent Journal, a nonpartisan reporting site, quoted a Harvard Institute of Politics study saying only 40 percent of likely voters aged 18 to 29 are hoping a Republican wins the White House next year, vs. 55 percent who want a Democrat to win.
Raffi Williams, deputy press secretary for the Republican National Committee, said in the Independent Journal that the GOP is boosting its presence on college campuses
"A strong point the Democrats had is that they're very good at creating a sense of community," Williams, 26, told the Independent Journal.
"After 2012, Republicans have been working to build a community of young conservatives, and the results of 2014 show we are making headway."
Meanwhile the California Independent Voter Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that offers education on public policy issues, says polling indicates younger voters are becoming more socially liberal.
The group's website cites a July report, "Millennials: The Politically Unclaimed Generation," by Libertarian think tank Reason-Rupe, whose polling found "53 percent of millennials would support a candidate who described him or herself as socially liberal and economically conservative."
The Reason-Rupe poll also found 34 percent of millennials say they are independent voters rather than party members. That's more than three times the rate among Americans over 30, the Voter Project reported.
Staff writer Judy Walton contributed to this report.