Young Adults Making Themselves Heard in Election

This piece was originally published in Reflector on November 3, 2019. 

Young adults are making their presence felt in this year’s Greenville municipal election.

As of Thursday, 30 percent of votes cast during the early voting period were voters ages 18-25, according to data released by the Pitt County Board of Elections. The numbers show that of the 3,677 voters who cast ballots between Oct. 16 and Thursday, 1,115 were ages 18-25 or 30.4 percent.

Voters ages 71 and up made up the second largest group, 937 votes or 25.5 percent. Voters ages 61-70 came in third with 786 voters or 21.5 percent. These two age groups typically share the first and second spot in voter participation, according to Pitt County voting data.

A total of 4,267 ballots were cast as of Friday, the last day of early voting. However, a breakdown that incorporates demographic information from Friday’s voting won’t be available until Monday.

The local elections data does not indicate how many of this year’s young adult voters are East Carolina University students, but data collected by Tufts University for the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement initiative shows the Pirate Nation is becoming more engaged in the electoral process.

The study uses locally and nationally collected data from presidential and mid-term elections to follow student voter participation through the years.

The most recent report, comparing participation in the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections, revealed a 13 percent increase in ECU students voting, said Alex Dennis, assistant director of the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement. The report showed nearly 30 percent of ECU students voted in the 2018 midterms compared to the 16.6 percent who participated in 2014.

There is no study of student engagement in municipal elections, Dennis said, but the local turnout often reflects what is happening nationally.

“This upcoming generation is a lot more aware of what is going on than we give them credit for,” he said. ECU, like other universities, is undertaking efforts to encourage students to be engaged in local communities, and that includes voting.

“We provide general information about the process because voting is not easy, it’s complicated,” Dennis said.

Using grants from the Andrew Goodman Foundation and the CampusVoteProject, the center hired three students who successfully campaigned to relocate an early voting site from the Willis Building to the new student center.

The students worked with the parking office to secure free parking space for community members, developed a plan to accommodate curbside voting and to ensure it the site was ADA compliant.

Voting data shows that on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday turnout at the student center exceeded turnout at the community schools center at Alice F. Keene Park. The park site traditionally has the highest daily turnout.

“It was really cool to see the power of civic engagement,” Dennis said. “That’s what we want to teach the next generation, that you do have power and you do have a voice.”

Not all efforts to engage ECU students in local elections are welcomed.

“It’s no secret in Greenville that unscrupulous tactics to turn the Greek vote have been implemented successfully for several elections,” former Greenville City Councilman Calvin Mercer wrote in an early September letter to The Daily Reflector.

Mercer alleged that members of ECU fraternities and sororities are viewed “as an easy block vote to be manipulated with lies and cheap rewards,” including limousine rides and “social points.”

He also alleged some candidates were denied the opportunity to speak at “Greek life” meetings.

This concerns Dave Nelson, the challenger in this year’s Greenville City Council District 3 race.

District 3 encompasses ECU’s main campus plus the surrounding neighborhoods where several fraternities and sororities are located.

It’s right for Greek organizations to encourage voter participation, Nelson said. Awarding service points for community involvement is a positive.

“If they gave out chocolate chip cookies wrapped in a bow for sporting an ‘I voted’ sticker, good for them,” Nelson said. “I hope that all organizations encourage participation in their city’s governance.”

But Nelson said if fraternities and sororities allowed one candidate to appear before them without inviting the other, “… they ignored the principles they advance.”

“I hope that any such excesses are not repeated if they occurred,” Nelson said. “I also hope that if evidence of such efforts exists, it is revealed and appropriately addressed.”

Incumbent District 3 Councilman Will Bell said if students involved in Greek life are voting it is a reflection of their interest in the community.

“I go around and speak to all sorts of organizations and it’s amazing to see how interested (they are) and how much they care about our community,” he said.

During his first two-year term Bell has sponsored “Sanitary Sunday” when students and community members clean up streets in the district.

“I think our young adults at East Carolina University are proud to call Greenville home,” Bell said. His hope is that these young voters will stay in Greenville after graduation.

It’s been charged that ECU’s Greek organizations have violated their tax-exempt status by preventing all candidates from appearing before their organizations.

These accusation are not true, because fraternities and sororities are 501©(7) organizations, said John Mountz, director of ECU’s Greek Life office. That is the tax designation of social clubs. According to the Internal Revenue Service, social clubs usually are exempt from taxes. A fraternity or sorority may lose its tax exempt status for discrimination based on race, color or religion, according to the IRS. It does not mention political activities.

“We know some candidates have made pretty extensive outreach efforts during the election but also during other times of the year to engage the students in town affairs,” Mountz said. “They want students to view Greenville as their home and to become involved in the community.”

Mountz said he has worked almost 25 years in Greek life at three universities. Fraternity and sorority houses are not on campus and pay property tax, so it’s not uncommon for students to get involved in local politics.

“Just about every election you see the folks working in campaigns are always young people,” Mountz said. “What you see is we have politically active students who are members of fraternities who got connected to candidates to support them and they work on their campaigns.”

Ashley Bisson, a senior and member of Sigma, Sigma, Sigma, was among the 138 people who voted at the student center on Thursday.

“I usually don’t vote but I thought I should start,” she said. Bisson said she was inspired after several candidates talked to her sorority about voting and other issues.

“The roads are a really big concern. All of driving in and out of town, all the potholes, it’s really horrible for my car,” she said. Safety is another issue of interest.

“You want to be able to go downtown, walk around Greenville without concern,” she said.

“Any time college students start exploring how to be involved, that’s part of being a college student, learning and growing and figuring out what it means to be an engaged member of my community,” Mountz said. “At a certain level, we want all of our students here to have that kind of experience. … It’s part of what the college experience is supposed to be.”

Contact Ginger Livingston at or 252-329-9570.