Western Carolina University students turned out for the March 15 North Carolina primary at a higher rate than the general voting population and all but one other college in the state. For the November general election, there’s a concerted effort to be No. 1.
According to Common Cause North Carolina, WCU students were second among North Carolina colleges and universities with a 37 percent turnout for the primary. General voter response across the state was 36 percent.
Not that the March turnout is something WCU student leaders are ready to celebrate. They have set a goal of 60 percent turnout or better for the November election, which includes presidential and gubernatorial ballots. “In the fall, we have even more planned,” said Joanna Woodson, a nontraditional junior social work student. “After all, for the spring semester we started from the ground up. We will have many more intentional dialogues, ‘dorm storms’ and other efforts for voter registration, voter education forums and activities planned strictly to get out the vote.
“We also will have an official website, vote.wcu.edu, where all the info that students may need will be shared, as well as a social media presence,” said Woodson, an intern with the Andrew Goodman Foundation, an organization devoted to equality, voting rights and social justice.
WCU’s effort to get out the student vote for the November election received a boost recently when the Jackson County Board of Elections decided to establish an early-voting station on campus. Members of the WCU community – students, faculty and staff – and area residents will be able to participate in early voting at a campus location from Thursday, Oct. 27, through Saturday, Nov. 5.
The Common Cause review of student voting was conducted by gathering data from the state Board of Elections and comparing turnout of collegiate 18- to 25-year-olds with that of the general population in a sample university precinct where a majority of residence halls are located. Woodson attributes the WCU success to a collaborative push to get students to the polls.
“We made a clear and successful effort to connect all the organizations on campus that care about getting out the vote so that we could unite as one team with one goal,” she said. “This included administration, SGA, academic departments and clubs, as well as over 50 individual students who donated their time to helping us register students, run events and run the ‘Voter Mobile’ during early voting and on Election Day.”
Common Cause is a citizen advocacy organization and a supporter of voter rights and election campaign finance reform, and opposes partisan redistricting. “When colleges are committed to encouraging civic participation among their students, it gives university communities a stronger voice in elections and helps students build a lifelong habit of engaging in the democratic process,” said Alyssa Canty, college outreach coordinator with the state chapter.
That coincides with the mission of WCU’s Center for Service Learning, which is focused on student engagement with the community in order to address relevant issues affecting the campus and region, as well as the state and nation. “Current students, the future of our engaged democracy, must see a connection between themselves and their vote,” said Lane Perry, center director. “The bridges that connect these two islands are the issues that our students care about. This is expressly why we focus on connecting the ballot box to the issues and the key issues to our burgeoning civic agents.
“If the students of today do not capture the essence and spirit of civic engagement, there is a good chance they might miss the development of an informed and inspired foundation for future engagement. We must believe this, and it is our responsibility to provide these developmental opportunities for the next generation of civic leaders, guardians and curators,” Perry said.
Woodson, along with Jennifer Cooper, assistant director of the service learning center, will represent WCU at a University of North Carolina General Administration meeting on voter outreach Wednesday, July 20.
To learn more about service learning involvement and activities, contact Perry at email@example.com or 828-227-2643.
By Geoff Cantrell