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Florida voter drive seeks to motivate state's youth vote

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO (Reuters) - The Dream Defenders, a student-led group that garnered national attention for occupying the Florida governor's office in 2013 to protest the state's self-defense law, kicked off a campaign on Tuesday to get younger voters to the polls in November.

The group of about 300 members is working in nine chapters in Florida counties which are home to the largest state universities. It says is targeting young, female and minority voters whose numbers traditionally fall sharply in mid-term elections.

"The reality is we're one big bloc and if we turn out, the state of Florida is ours," the group exhorts on its website.

Susan MacManus, a professor at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa and a veteran Florida political analyst, called the move "very smart."

Women, minority and young voter groups all intersect on college campuses, MacManus said, and their unexpectedly large turnout in Florida in 2012 is credited by many analysts with President Barack Obama winning the state.

"Most people attribute that to activism by minorities on college campuses, particularly minority women," she said.

Dream Defenders made headlines last year when they staged a lengthy sit-in at Governor Rick Scott's office, outraged over the application of the state's "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, at the hands of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.

Dream Defenders have since taken on a range of issues, including among their constituency the LBGT community fighting for marriage equality and public school funding.

"It's quite simply the values that are reflected from the top, from lawmakers, don't really reflect the values or the agenda of young people or people of color," said Dream Defenders co-founder Phillip Agnew.

Some of the issues include what the group calls the "school-to-prison pipeline" of disadvantaged students who quickly end up in jail after graduating as well as the privatization of prisons, Agnew said.

MacManus said her sampling of students on the USF campus last spring indicated a medical marijuana amendment on the November ballot could help drive younger voters to the polls.

"The college students swear by it. They're paying attention to it," MacManus said.

MacManus said those findings contradict results from a recent study by Harvard University's Institute of Politics which found young adults losing interest in voting and only one-fourth saying they definitely will vote in elections this fall.

(Editing by David Adams)

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