Bringing the Ballot to Western Carolina University
In late October, I became the first of thousands of students to vote at Western Carolina University’s premier polling place in its 127 years of public education. Though I have voted every chance I could since turning 18, this was the most exhilarating ballot I have ever cast. This election was so meaningful to me because I had Andy Goodman’s story as a base from which I could work to understand the intricacies, maladies, and strengths that distinguish the government of this unique place in which we live. Before this year I had never stopped to contemplate what it really means to live in a country with a representative democracy; nor had I appreciated how short a timespan 52 years is–or how the more things change, the more they stay the same. I never realized how truly unending the fight for justice is.
To understand the implications of our new polling place, one must first understand the political climate of Jackson County, North Carolina. WCU is a rural school, and with that rurality comes difficulties not experienced elsewhere. For example, during the March primary, the only accessible polling place for most students was located a mile and a half from school, down a highway with no sidewalks or a public transportation option. The Voter ID law was also in place in North Carolina when our team began on this journey, and students who managed to make it to the polling place but forgot the required documents would likely not try again. When students struggle to see their image reflected in government, it is tough to convince them that their vote is worth the perseverance. The climate of Jackson County can, at times, feel like oppressive heat.
Addressing what some folks call voter apathy, or what I call reasonable responses to feelings of voicelessness among students, while combating complex voter ID laws and lack of convenience, was an obvious and oftentimes maddening obstacle we felt we had to challenge. By removing this one barrier we could not only address the cynicism felt by many students, but also build trust between students, university administration and local government.
The process by which we brought the polling place to campus was another beast entirely. Before we approached the Jackson County Board of Elections (BOE) we had to get a record of community support. After getting over 1,000 signatures in one week, we lobbied to get the school administration on board, which at first was hesitant. Once the entire Western Carolina University community stood firmly behind us, preparations for our presentation to the board began. We researched election law and statutes; we established promises of financial backing from the County Manager and County Commissioners; we gathered bipartisan congressional letters of support; we prepared a bipartisan team of students who would lead the presentation; we observed BOE meetings; and finally, we got on the BOE calendar.
After the presentation, it took a month of hair-pullingly, thumb-twiddlingly stressful waiting, but we eventually received unanimous approval from a majority Republican board. Looking back, I firmly hold that bipartisanship was the key to our success. By reaching across all aisles from our nonpartisan standpoint, our effort was able to focus on the process of civic engagement, instead of the ill-perceived focus on end product. In other words, our only agenda was to show students that they can fight for whatever it is they deem justice, and they have the right to have their voices heard.
In the end, over 2,500 Western Carolina University students voted at the polling place, outpacing, and in some cases even doubling, every single other polling place in the county, except the Board of Elections (which was open a week longer than our site–so really, we still won). Additionally, since the voter ID law was struck down this summer, 570 brand new voters were registered to vote during early voting at our polling site. Compared to the 2012 election, there were approximately 2,500 more early votes cast this election in Jackson County, North Carolina–a number which happens to mirror the number of early votes at the WCU polling place.
As a member of the Vote Everywhere family, my understanding that progress does not always win the battle has cemented firmly in my mind. This particular lesson has stretched my mental and emotional capacity to the max many times throughout the last year. However, our team won this battle at WCU–and that feeling of casting my ballot at my university was one glorious victory. The trouble is, the fight for justice is unending and it is already time for us to get back up and march on.
About the Author:
Joanna Woodson is a Vote Everywhere Ambassador and senior at Western Carolina University, where she studies social work. She believes whole heartedly in the power, as well as the inherent dignity of all people. One day, Joanna hopes to use her social work degree alongside a law degree to help in the pursuit of justice.