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College Students Swayed The 2018 Election For Dems, What Does That Mean In 2020?

Lilly Knoepp
Freshman Evelyn Voegeli and sophomore Holly Miller are both part of the Student Democracy Coalition.

Voters on North Carolina college campuses played a huge role in the 2018 election.  Democrats broke the legislature’s Republican super-majority by winning two districts that included two of the largest campuses in the state. BPR digs into how those students are voting this year:

Unlike many other UNC System schools Western Carolina University is still holding some in-person classes. That means students can also vote in-person at an on-campus polling place in Jackson County.

“I’m 18, finally. So it’s nice that I can vote.”

That’s Carter Bucholz. He’s a freshman from Illinois and is getting registered to vote in North Carolina.  College students can choose whether they want to vote in their hometown or in the county that they live in during the school year in North Carolina. Bucholz explains…

“I’m not sure if I really trust enough, at this point, to do a mail-in ballot. I feel like it’s just easier to do it in person and it will be nice to be registered here,” says Bucholz.

COVID-19 made mail-in ballots a more attractive choice, but President Trump and others cast doubt on the security of mail-in ballots – something that has been historically disproven.  For students, the choice of how to vote was made even more complex when colleges went virtual because of the pandemic. 

Lane Perry is the executive director for the Center for Community Engagement And Service Learning on campus. He says the uncertainty due to the pandemic has changed the way that students are voting.

“It’s allowed us to reposition a lot of our work into a virtual space. Which is perhaps something that we probably should have been doing for quite some time now,” says Perry, who is also an advisor for the Student Democracy Coalition and helps set up voting on campus. 

Perry wants students – many of whom are voting for the first time – to get off to the right start:

“Without a strong understanding of the tenants of democracy, specifically free accessible and fair elections then we ultimately erode the foundation of the next generation of our citizenry,” says Perry.  

Holly Miller is a sophomore at Western and a leader of the school’s Student Democracy Coalition.  

“I think that it is so important to make sure everyone to has their voice heard. Whether or not I agree with them,” says Miller, who is studying to be a high school history and political science teacher.

The Student Democracy Coalition was founded in 2016, members have been volunteering to help students vote. BPR followed Miller as she approached groups eating lunch around the cafeteria to make sure they are registered to vote.

“Are you registered to vote?” asks Miller.

“Yes,” responds a group of masked students sharing lunch.

“Are you all voting here or back home?” asks Miller.

“I have an absentee ballot,” answers one student. “Okay,” Miller responds.  

She says most already had a voting plan…

“I also saw some people who I know I have talked to before who said, ‘No I don’t want to register.’ Now say, ‘yeah, I actually do want to register on campus. So it was nice to see that change in mind now that we are closer to the election,” says Miller.

Western Carolina Political Science professor Dr. Chris Cooper says that these student votes could be key in this election. They were in 2018…

“College students where kind of the mouse that roared,” says Cooper. “There might not be a lot of them,  they maybe spread throughtout the state, they might be difficult to reach but if they act collectively, they can absolutely affect election results.”

For example, Cooper says students were key two years ago in helping Democrat Rep. Joe Sam Queen take back the 119th house district from Republican Mike Clampitt. The 119th includes the Western Carolina campus.  Democrats also flipped a state house district that includes Appalachian State’s campus the same year. 

“On the college vote in general, a lot of these people are unaffiliated voters so they don't tend to be  Democrats or Republicans, so they are a bit easier to flip,” says Cooper.

The Student Coalition is not the only organization registering students on campus. NextGen, a progressive organization which is working to mobilize the youth vote in 11 states has also been registering students on campus. Rachel Weber is the organization’s press secretary based in Durham.

So far, she says the group has registered almost 130,000 voters across the country and that in North Carolina about half of new voters are under the age of 30. NextGen has registered almost 14,000 in the state.  

“Already by the time we got to summer this year, the youth registration (in NC) had surpassed the total youth registered by November in 2016,” says Weber.

All of the organizing for NextGen has been virtual since the pandemic. They have been especially focused on colleges, HBCUS and community colleges, says Weber.

NextGen has been organizing these young voters primarily by hosting virtual voter registration tutorials.

Damien Gregory is a senior at Western. He’s one of the NextGen fellows and an environmental science major. He says climate change is what has driven him to help register his peers to vote:

“I thought that my voice and my time would best be used to advocate for progressive ideals to ensure positive climate change action will be enforced for the next four years,” says Gregory, who also minors in geology and environmental health.

At this point in early voting, one in five ballots cast in North Carolina have been votes from people under the age of 40.

Freshman Hope Chellman says that she is voting for the first time by sending in her absentee ballot back to Hickory. For her, this is just one more thing that has been different about this year:

“I didn’t think that I would be packing like 15 masks along with my favorite sweater to go to college,” says Chellman. “But you know I feel like our generation has been given the tough stuff to do. But we just kind of shrug our shoulders, make a meme and do it.”

After a week of early voting, more than 30 percent of the registered voters in Jackson County, home to Western Carolina University, have voted either through early voting or absentee by mail.  That’s slightly above the state average.

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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