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WCU works to engage student body

Western Carolina University students attend an event organized by the Student Democracy Coalition to learn what will be on the March Primary ballot. Jessi Stone photo Western Carolina University students attend an event organized by the Student Democracy Coalition to learn what will be on the March Primary ballot. Jessi Stone photo

Students at Western Carolina University have helped hundreds of their fellow Catamounts register to vote in the 2020 election, and at the end of the day, they say it doesn’t matter whether they register to vote red or blue — just as long as they show up to cast a ballot. 

“The North Carolina Democratic Party tried to push us to do registrations the last few weeks and to register as many Democrats as we can, but there’s a lot of challenges when you try to do it that way,” said Stephen Hunter, president of the College Democrats at WCU. “We don’t care what party you are registering for — we just need you to vote because your opinion matters.”

With a growing number of students registered as unaffiliated, there have been more efforts on campus to engage students through a nonpartisan civic group instead of through the College Democrats or College Republicans. 

Lane Perry, director of WCU's Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, said the Student Democracy Coalition got started in January 2016 after WCU student Joanna Woodson wanted to find a way to engage students in the civic process and strengthen the democracy in a nonpartisan way. The student group turned in 50 more voter registrations last Friday, which was the deadline to register for the March 3 primary, but Perry said they’ve probably registered hundreds of students since classes started last August. 

“The work of an engaged democracy demands and deserves efforts like those of the WCU Student Democracy Coalition,” Perry said. “Over time, the sustained dedication of the student coalition members gains traction, builds capacity, sets an example for their peers and provides information for fellow students and the campus.”

Right now the group has about seven strong members leading efforts to register students and educate them about what will be on the March 3 ballot. On Monday night, the coalition held an event called “What’s on the Ballot?” and walked attendees through the entire Republican and Democratic ballots to explain the lesser known state offices. They also answered any questions students might have about when and how to vote. 

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“An important message for us to convey for this coming primary is that IDs are not needed if student voters are already registered in Jackson County,” said Liam Currie, a sophomore political science major from Cary. “That’s big. Though for those students who live in Jackson County, including in on-campus residence halls, who are not yet registered, they can register and vote on campus at the same time during early voting with their student ID.”


Challenges for young voters

The Coalition isn’t the only student group working to register voters though. WCU’s College Democrats have also been working since last fall to register as many people as possible regardless of party affiliation. By Friday afternoon, Miller said the College Democrats turned in another 150 new voter registrations, but it hasn’t come without challenges.

“It’s really important to get college students to register, but a lot of them don’t understand the necessity to vote or how easy it can be. They don’t know their school has a campus site or they think they have to go home to vote, but a lot of universities across the state, including Western, have voting sites on campus or close to campus,” Miller said.

Miller said getting students registered is only half the battle when many students are still confused about what the current laws are regarding voting in North Carolina. The Voter ID laws that the Republican-led legislature passed in 2013 required college students to show a photo ID with an address that matched where they are registered to vote. For students who are from the other side of the state but live on WCU campus, the requirement would have created a hardship when trying to vote. The other options are to go home to vote or submit an absentee ballot. 

“Having students go back home to vote is very suppressive. We have students here from Wilmington and the Outer Banks — they’re not going to go home to vote and sending in an absentee ballot is not something many people understand how to do,” Miller said. “But if we can get them to register here and vote here, it takes them three minutes when they have a 15-minute break between classes.”

The Student Democracy Coalition members have been quick to point out to students at their events that the Voter ID laws were ruled unconstitutional by the courts and that students do not need a photo ID to vote in the primary election. Students can vote on the second floor of the University Center during regular early voting hours or the coalition is offering a free shuttle on Election Day over to the Cullowhee Recreation Center to vote. 

Even once they understand how easy getting to the polls can be, there are still plenty of other reasons why youth voters don’t cast ballots. 

“I had a conversation with one person while doing a group registration and he asked me, ‘Is it bad to not want to register to vote?” I told him it was because otherwise your input into the election is invalid because you didn't participate,” Miller said. “People also like to say, ‘My vote won’t count’ but at the same time I think they are just thinking of the presidential election when our local positions should be taken seriously, especially the judge and county commissioner races.”

Tori Lee, a 25-year-old working professional in Haywood County, said she’s registered but hasn’t voted since she moved to North Carolina from Maryland to attend college. She stayed in the area after graduation, but said she still doesn’t have enough time to research the candidates and find time to take off from work to vote.

“I know I should vote but I don’t. I don’t even know who my options are to vote for and haven’t found that info to be easily accessible. Plus, my work schedule and time plays into both of those,” she said. “I also don’t think that my education ever emphasized the importance of it. I took a government course in high school, but I honestly don’t think I was ever required to take one in college.”

James Seidler, 27, of Haywood County, said misinformation and a lack of information keeps him from voting.

“Being unsure what sources are credible and not just selling a candidate, which leads to the vote feeling somewhat like a shot in the dark and it's not just positive options. A random vote can help a negative power,” he said. “The, ‘it doesn’t take long’ argument rarely includes the research portion of casting a vote.”

Others just don’t think their vote will make a difference because all the candidates are the same whether there is a “D” or a “R” in front of their names.

“My personal opinion is that it doesn’t matter who is in the seat, they are only the spokesperson for what the government is wanting them to say or do,” said 19-year-old Waynesville resident Julia Grantham.

Perry said college students and other young voters are juggling a lot of priorities and sometimes voting just isn’t a priority, but just like anything else, it’s important to help them develop good habits at a young age. 

“It’s never been easier to communicate right now in our society, but it’s still difficult because of all the noise that exists out there and the mixed messages youth receive on a daily basis,” he said. “Just like for New Year’s when you make a resolution, you are really just creating new habits — that’s what we’re trying to do with young voters, but they also have to make it a priority to be prepared, to re-register if they’ve moved and to understand what's happening in the community.”

There are many young people who have actively decided not to participate in the voting process for one reason or another, but Perry said students at WCU are excited about voting and being involved in the process. 

“They’re excited about it and see themselves as being part of the solution,” he said. “For so many of them it’s their first time voting in their life and that’s so important because it’s the one that starts the most healthy habit that our democracy needs to survive.” 

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