Can you remember casting your first presidential election ballot?

I voted for the first time in the 1972 presidential election, the contest between incumbent Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat George McGovern.

That election came at a difficult time in the United States.

The Vietnam War was still raging and would continue another three years, taking the lives of additional thousands of American military personnel and countless Vietnamese, Cambodians and Lao people.

At home, early reports on the Watergate break-in, which had occurred in June, suggested deeper problems within the Nixon White House. But it would be two years before the full scope of that scandal became known.

As a college student and committed opponent of the war, I voted for McGovern, a meaningless vote in retrospect as Nixon won in a landslide.

Voting in 1972 was straightforward. Elections took place on a single day. Polling places, located in just about every neighborhood, were easy to find. A voter entered the polling place, showed a simple form of identification, walked into a booth and behind a curtain, marked a paper ballot.

The anti-war movement fueled young voter passions in 1972 just as the national voting age had dropped from 21 to 18 years. Nationally, turnout among voters 18 to 24 was about 50 percent, a turnout not matched in any presidential election since, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. I remember casting my vote on the University of Oregon campus – I was still a student – where a polling place was conveniently located.

If only voting could be that simple again.

To their credit, elections officials on the Palouse, in both Washington and Idaho, are attempting to make pandemic-voting easier, especially for students.

Washington has a long history of by-mail voting and the system is tried and tested. But officials around the state, concerned about Postal Service disruptions and delays, are working to provide additional ballot drop-off sites. On the Washington State University campus, there will be a 24-hour drop-off box located at the Compton Union Building. The Whitman County elections (http://whitmancounty.org/169/Election-Information) website has important dates and instructions.

Issues are a bit more complicated on the Idaho side. But there will be an on-campus polling place at the University of Idaho Student Recreation Center. The Latah County elections website (https://www.latah.id.us/auditor/elections/) has important dates and instructions, including deadlines for requesting mail ballots and dates for early voting.

The most difficult hurdle for student voters in both states may be voter registration. Both websites listed above have instructions and deadlines for registration, possible online in both states.

In the 2016 election, Idaho turnout among young voters 18 to 24 was 43 percent compared to overall national voter turnout of about 60 percent. Similar numbers were reported for Washington, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Washington is reliably blue. Idaho is reliably red. Increased turnout among young people will not alter the presidential results. But it is a different calculus on down-ballot races. Increased turnout from UI and WSU students could have a real impact.

In these unsettled times it will be easy to find reasons not to vote. But votes do matter, do count, maybe now more than ever.

Spokane’s Steven A. Smith, formerly of Moscow, is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho and was a professional journalist for 40 years. He retired from full-time teaching in May.

Recommended for you