Andrew Goodman Vote Everywhere Promising Practices: Advocating for an On-campus Polling Place
Andrew Goodman Vote Everywhere’s promising practices are a key set of recommendations for cultivating civic engagement and access on campus and ultimately sustaining inclusive and equitable campus cultures. This is the third post in a Q&A series with Andrew Goodman Campus Champions about our promising practices and how to implement them on campus.
A Q&A with Lane Perry, Andrew Goodman Campus Champion at Western Carolina University
In addition to registering voters, providing voter education, and getting out the vote, Andrew Goodman Campus Teams also prioritize advocacy campaigns related to civic and voter engagement. In some cases, advocacy focuses on removing barriers to voting, like burdensome residency or voter ID requirements. In many other cases, advocacy seeks to add more access points so that students have the same level of accessibility to voting as other voters.
At Western Carolina University (WCU), our Andrew Goodman Campus Team knew that student voters should have equal access, and in 2016, they launched a plan to add an essential access point: an on-campus early polling place. Before it was instated, WCU’s nearest polling place was roughly two miles away off a busy highway. After building and leveraging relationships with the local Board of Elections and key campus stakeholders, our team secured their early polling place, which has since led to increased turnout among WCU’s students.
But the polling place’s value is even more than that. Students carry out every aspect of their collegiate lives on campus, and now the on-campus polling place allows them one more—voting. It completes the culture that WCU strives to create for their students.
Check out our Q&A below with Andrew Goodman Campus Champion Lane Perry to discover just how our Campus Team at WCU advocated for their on-campus early voting site, as well as pointers about the best ways to do it on your campus.
What led the Andrew Goodman Campus Team at Western Carolina University to pursue advocating for an on-campus polling place?
A supermajority of our students lives on (or very close to) campus. These students eat on campus, learn on (and off) campus, work out on campus, and their lives revolve around the campus and local community. One of our goals in the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning is to help students develop a personal habit and campus culture around community and civic engagement. Simply stated, our students live, work, serve, and play on campus—shouldn’t they have the opportunity to vote in that location as well?
Before the Andrew Goodman Campus Team, as part of our Student Democracy Coalition, petitioned and successfully obtained the on-campus polling location, the nearest polling location was a two-mile walk down a very busy highway. We did everything we could to shuttle voters to the site, but given the volume of voters and the capacity of shuttles, we just could not keep up. And by no means was it helping to establish the personal habits of civic engagement that we were striving to develop. These circumstances—demand, timing, interest, and true need—helped establish the context for us to pursue an on-campus polling location.
How did you and the Andrew Goodman Campus Team implement this promising practice? What partnerships or resources did you engage?
The process started from scratch. What we lacked in having a clear process, we made up for with partnerships, relationships, and collaboration. We have continually worked with the local Board of Elections and had a presence, respect, and established relationship with them before we started to petition for the polling location.
We knew we had to demonstrate, clearly and objectively, that an on-campus polling place was wanted and would be beneficial to our students and community. We developed a petition that laid out the value and impact of having a polling place on campus. Our Andrew Goodman Campus Team sought to obtain 1,000 signatures that we could present to our administrative leadership team to obtain support from the campus. At this point the petition resulted in nearly 1,200 signatures, a letter of support from the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, letters of support from both respected Republican and Democrat legislatures, and student voices representing Republican, Democrat, and Unaffiliated support for an on-campus polling location. This clarion of support was brought to the local Board of Elections and through the presentation, articulation, and framing of the request, the on-campus polling location was approved in July 2016. We have now hosted the polling location three times over the past three years and are gearing up for the 2020 primaries in February.
The catalysts for this effort came from two sources: our students (we would not want it to have come from any other impetus) and the support of The Andrew Goodman Foundation. The students’ passion was met with support by AGF, and this reaction has created a powerful civic engagement force at WCU.
What challenges or obstacles did you face, and how did you overcome these to achieve your goal?
We had to chart the course as we went and navigate politically and culturally sensitive waters. The only way we were able to overcome any of the challenges faced was through the relationships that existed across campus and our community. Many of our successful partners were on campus, such as our Political Science Department, the Public Policy Institute, Parking Services, Campus Police, University Center, and more. Many of our partners were also outside of our community, including The Andrew Goodman Foundation, Campus Vote Project, NC Campus Compact, and many others that support this work on a national level.
Since implementing this promising practice, what impact has it had on your campus?
Impact is so much more than voting rates, registration rates, programming, and attendance. In 2012 68% of the registered WCU students voted, and in 2016, 70% who were registered voted. The 2016 students voted at a higher rate than the rate of the general population of the state of North Carolina, which was 68.5%. Additionally, between 2012 and 2016, we saw an increase of 765 students (13%) vote early. Based on early voting figures obtained from the on-campus polling location, a majority of this increase is directly attributed to accessibility to the ballot box.
This did not stop with the 2016 General Election and seems to have a compounded effect on the 2018 Midterm Election when compared to the previous 2014 Midterm Election. In 2014, the official WCU voting rate of all WCU students was 17%. Based on preliminary data regarding the 2018 Midterm Election, our campus has been highlighted as the primary contributor to increasing the youth vote in Jackson County to nearly 30%. WCU’s 2018 Midterm NSLVE data demonstrated an overall voting rate of 31%, nearly doubling the 2014 Midterm rate. This is exceptional for many reasons, but it should be noted that WCU’s student body increased by over 25% in size during that same window of time. At this point, a majority of that impact is being attributed to our on-campus polling location and its accessibility. While these are useful barometers that we can address, we have also started to see a shift in culture on campus.
This perspective was perhaps most aptly captured by a student. She said, “until I moved to WCU, I hardly ever heard about elections outside the Presidential Election. Students at WCU have taken it upon themselves to inform every student of upcoming elections and sign as many people up as they can to vote.” The point in this is for our democracy to not be relegated to a set of percentage rates, but for it to remain an integral part of our culture and what it means to be a U.S. citizen, what it means to be a North Carolinian, or what it means to be a Catamount. It means that you serve, you inform yourself, you vote, and you believe in a democracy that is bigger than you, but better because of you.
What advice do you have for other colleges and universities trying to advocate for an on-campus polling place?
Don’t start with the process; start with the partnerships. Even the best process will fail if the partnerships—or the approach to partnership development—are not there. Once you have reached out and started dialogue and the “writing/cashing” of small, manageable checks on small, manageable projects (e.g., attend board meetings, ask questions, be present), it is possible to begin to scale up to more audacious goals (e.g., on-campus polling place, online voter registration support).
Now that you have achieved this promising practice, what opportunities will the Andrew Goodman Campus Team at Western Carolina University explore next to advance civic engagement on your campus?
We currently have a voter identification requirement that has come into focus for the state of North Carolina and its voting process. This will have far-reaching impacts on voters across our great state. The Andrew Goodman Campus Team and other members of the Student Democracy Coalition are working to address this requirement and develop a communications plan for helping get the word out that the voter identification requirement is one to be aware of and prepared for! A prepared voter can lead to a stronger democracy, and information is the key to preparation.
For WCU’s Andrew Goodman Campus Team, advocating for an on-campus early voting location was important for increasing access for student voters, and in turn, increasing the voting rate. Equally important was building a campus culture that embraces every aspect of a student’s life and leads them toward being lifelong voters. The on-campus location at WCU is poised to do both. Stay tuned, as we continue to share lessons and promising practices from our Andrew Goodman Campus Champions in this series.
About The Authors
Margaret Sasser is AGF’s Program and Communications Manager. Margaret is passionate about civil rights issues, storytelling, and helping students to become active members of their communities.
Dr. Lane Perry serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning and is an adjunct faculty member of the Human Services Department (College of Education) and the Entrepreneurship Program (College of Business) at Western Carolina University.