With the help of on-campus voting sites, college students in Western North Carolina are disproving the age-old notion that they just don’t vote.
In March, students from Western Carolina University and the University of North Carolina-Asheville voted in record numbers during the primaries—at 37 and 42 percent, respectively—more than any other school in the UNC system. In fact, students at the schools turned out to vote at a higher rate than that of the general voting population’s 36 percent. The success of the campus voting sites comes at a time when North Carolina’s own voting rules remain in flux, after the U.S. court of appeals recently overturned its controversial voter ID law, passed in 2013. As the general election draws near, students at the schools are intent on turning out in even higher numbers.
“If we don’t get 75 percent, we pushed as hard as we could to get that, but, we’ll move on,” says Joanna Woodson, a junior at Western Carolina who helped establish the voting site on her campus.
“I think it shows that the school is willing to foster democratic engagement, in a way that they broadcast to the rest of the world that they want. This shows that they’re willing to put in the time, put in the work that it takes to actually make that happen. If you don’t have people putting in the work, it’s just going to simmer and go away.”
According to Woodson, who studies social work at Western, obtaining a voting station on her campus was a lot of hard work, but in the end was worth it. Of the 5,000 or so students registered to vote at Western, roughly 1,800 of them cast their ballots during the primaries. Woodson is confident her fellow students will vote in higher numbers during the general election, now that the groundwork has been laid.
“I feel like we’re operating as more of a well-oiled machine now, whereas before it felt like we were just in a baby stage.
About half of Western’s students don’t own a vehicle, Woodson explains, so those who couldn’t drive to the nearest polling station had to walk over a mile and a half across U.S. Highway 107 without sidewalks prior to the primaries. So, to students like Woodson, on-campus voting just makes sense.
“I think we’ve just made it localized. The vote is here. Everything else in their lives is here; their education is here, they eat here, they hang out here, they do everything on campus. So now the vote is here, and there’s no way around it. You will see all of the marketing we have saying ‘go vote’.”
According to Jackson County Board of Elections Director Lisa Lovedahl, the task of establishing an on-campus voting site at Western was a challenge for her agency.
“This is a first time, so we’re learning as we’re going. The students are part of our community, and we’re here to serve everybody in our community, and they’re part of it.”
But despite any new obstacles, Lovedahl is happy to accommodate student voters.
“It’s always been a goal to have every eligible voter in Jackson County an opportunity to vote,” says Lovedahl.
The opportunity for students to vote with ease has allowed college-goers in the mountains at least to buck the trend of low-voter participation they have come to be known for, according to Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause of North Carolina—a non-profit, non-partisan voter outreach program which helped campuses across the state obtain on-campus sites. In a written statement, Phillips said, “The conventional wisdom is that young voters lag well behind middle-aged and older voters in election participation, so it’s inspiring to see students at UNC-A and WCU defy that stereotype.”
Back at Western, Woodson says that the state’s political climate can be much more daunting for students in the mountains than it is for students anywhere else.
“I started out my schooling career at NC State (2011), in the heart of everything. Everything was right there, you couldn’t get away from politics and engagement, basically. Out here, it feels like we are almost forgotten sometimes. It feels like there’s a line cut-off after Asheville, and everything else is west, and we’re just out here in the middle of the mountains… You can make change if you’re willing to take the time to hold folks accountable, to do the work and put it in yourself, and to not take no for an answer.”