TENS of thousands of youngsters across Hampshire will head to the polls for the first time on Thursday and they could prove to be the decisive factor in our election races.

While fewer than 40 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds eligible to vote did so in 2005 or 2001, they represent thousands of potential electors for each of the candidates. And given that some Hampshire MPs won majorities in the hundreds last time they could be crucial.

There are 41,500 students in Southampton – almost one in six of the population – and many are registered to vote in the city’s three constituencies: Itchen, Test and Romsey and Romsey and Southampton North.

Election chiefs have reported an increase in voter registration and the Electoral Commission reckons those expressing an interest are disproportionately youngsters.

A poll conducted by Endsleigh and the National Union of Students found 75 percent were expected to vote in this general election.

Southampton University Students’ Union President Steve O’Reilly said: “There is a popular perception that students do not care about the election but this year students are really engaging with it.

“We have been running a campaign to get students voting by putting up posters and having t-shirts with voting slogans on them.

“We also had our own hustings featuring the local candidates. We feared people would not show up but we ended up with a packed lecture theatre.”

Southampton Solent Student’s Union has also been working hard to encourage voting throughout the campus.

Vice president of communications Adam Parker reckons it’s been very successful.

He said: “Students here are worried about the major issues as there has been a lot in the press about cuts.

“They are also concerned with the general perception of students and there is a feeling that the Government needs to do something to appease students.

“They feel abandoned at the moment as tuition fees keep increasing and it makes it harder for lots of young people to go to university.

We need to make sure students know the Government works for them.”

He added: “We recently had an event where we invited students from various local universities such as Southampton and Winchester where we had talks and demonstrations and then a debate with the main party candidates from the Southampton Itchen ward. It was a great success.”

But while more students are considering using their vote, they still face the conundrum of whether to vote at home or where they are studying.

Mr Parker, 22, said: “The first-years often decide to vote at home because they are not used to the area and its issues but older students and postgrads often vote here because they develop more of a sense of community the longer they live here.”

With the recent inclusion of Southampton University halls of residence Glen Eyre and Bencraft Court in the Romsey and Southampton North constituency, there is a chance the student vote could have a large impact in the tight contest.

Mr O’Reilly, 22, said: “I really hope students make an impact in the Romsey election and I think they will do.

“There has definitely been an increase in student support for the vote and I think that will show.”