The student-led Cullowhee Voter Initiative to improve voter participation and education in Jackson County kicks off with a voter registration drive and student debate Thursday, Feb. 23, followed by a debate on campus Monday, March 5, in which members of the North Carolina General Assembly are scheduled to participate. Additional events will be planned on campus and throughout the community.
“We want to educate students and members of the community in a nonpartisan way about the important issues that will be on the ballot in May, get them registered to vote and then provide easy transportation to polling stations in both May and November,” said Seth Crockett, a senior from Whittier majoring in political science who serves on the Honors College Board of Directors and as a faculty senator in the Student Government Association.
In addition to political primaries, the May election will include an amendment that would add language providing that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union valid or recognized in the state and the Jackson County alcohol referendum that would allow sales countywide.
Crockett and Anderson Miller, a Candler native majoring in philosophy and international studies, said they were motivated to co-found the initiative by past voter turnout figures in Jackson County, particularly from 2010, that they believe could be better. The first goal of the Cullowhee Voter Initiative is to register 1,000 people to vote before April, said Crockett.
The effort formally begins with a voter registration drive to be held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23, on the lawn of A.K. Hinds University Center. Students will be able to drop off voter registration forms, which they will receive in their campus mailboxes at venues around campus and booths run by student organizations.
Participating clubs include the College Democrats, College Republicans, Honors College Student Board of Directors, Leadership Institute, Philosophy Club, Pre-Law Club, Presbyterian College Ministry, Residence Hall Council, Resident Student Association, Student Government Association, Ummah, UNITY and The Wesley Foundation. The organizations will help students get informed about different issues, said Miller.
In addition, a student debate will be held at 1 p.m. that day on the University Center lawn and residence halls will have drop boxes for voter registration forms and will be host evening events such as a Rock the Vote karaoke event to be held in Reynolds Residence Hall.
The second event planned as part of the Cullowhee Voter Initiative will be a debate on Monday, March 5, at 6 p.m. in the University Center theater. Participants include Republican senators Jim Davis and Ralph Hise and Democratic representatives Ray Rapp and Rick Glazier. The moderator will be Gibbs Knotts, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
“Over the past year, I have gotten deeply involved in local politics and I have learned how much my life is affected by county commissioners, N.C. House and Senate members, and higher offices,” said Miller. “The only way that we as 18- to 25-year-olds will be listened to is if the elected officials know that we vote. All of us at Western Carolina University are affected by how the N.C General Assembly votes on our tuition and education legislation. It matters to all of us, and we should raise our voice and show that we do care and we can make a difference.”
Crockett said he initially volunteered to help spearhead the Cullowhee Voter Initiative after a discussion with Brian Railsback, dean of the Honors College, about voter turnout, particularly among college-age voters, in Jackson County during the 2010 election.
Turnout among registered voters ages 18 to 25 in Jackson County in 2010 was 17 percent, while turnout was 27 percent for voters ages 26 to 40, 55 percent for voters ages 41 to 65, and 60 percent for voters ages 60 and above, according to statistics posted by the statewide nonpartisan organization Democracy North Carolina. While lower than other age groups, the 17 percent voter participation rate among 18- to 25-year-olds in Jackson County was not dramatically different from turnout in other North Carolina counties with somewhat large university populations, such as Watauga County, home of Appalachian State University, which reported 18 percent, and Pitt County, home to East Carolina University, which reported 14 percent.
“We realized it is an important part of a university’s mission to see that students are involved in their civic duty as voters,” said Railsback of the discussion he had with other faculty members related to voter turnout. “Some of us felt we had dropped the ball.”
What helped the Cullowhee Voter Initiative crystallize was a comment by Hugh Evans, co-founder and CEO of the Global Poverty Project, at a reception held when he visited WCU for a presentation last fall. Asked what a group of Honors College students could do to make a difference, Evans pointed to the political process. “We got to talking about voting, and he said that would be huge – that people could take control of their destiny if they would bother to vote,” said Railsback.
Todd Collins, interim director of the Public Policy Institute at WCU and assistant professor of political science and public affairs, said a range of factors must be considered when assessing why college-age students do or do not exercise their right to vote.
One comprehensive study that involved surveying hundreds of college students nationwide found that registration barriers did not seem to inhibit whether students voted, said Collins.
“The study also found that 71 percent were still registered in their hometowns and that the further away your college was from your hometown, the less likely you were to vote,” said Collins. “They also found that those in ‘battleground’ states were more likely to vote. North Carolina was a battleground state in 2008, which led to greater turnout. This wasn’t the case in the midterm election of 2010.”
Another factor seems to be ease of transportation and access to the polls, he said. To address this in the state of Illinois, for instance, a law was passed mandating that there must be an early voting site on college campuses, he said.
Collins said efforts to encourage college students to vote or to suppress such efforts is often based on political partisanship because of the perception that college students tend to vote more liberally. “In Bloomington, Ind., Republicans lost control of local government due to the influx of college voters from the University of Indiana after the lowering of the voting age to 18,” he said. “If you look at who supports efforts to make it easier or harder for college students to vote, it usually falls along political party lines.”
Miller said so far the overwhelming majority of the 232 voters registered as part of the Cullowhee Voter Initiative have registered unaffiliated, which makes him question whether what may be perceived elsewhere regarding students’ political leanings is reflective of the WCU community.
“We want to make sure that all informative events the Cullowhee Voter Initiative supports have equal representation of Republication and Democratic voices,” said Miller.
Crockett said, in general, it was important to him and to Miller to develop a nonpartisan effort, which led them to pull together a nonpartisan steering committee of six students to lead the initiative.
“What really appeals to me is that this effort crosses political divides,” said Crockett. “The Cullowhee Voter Initiative is about giving people a voice and empowering them to shape the future of their community and their government. Our core mission is to inform citizens of the issues and get them to vote, regardless of how they vote.”
By Teresa Killian Tate