Bringing the Ballot to WCU
By gaining bipartisan support, Western Carolina University Vote Everywhere Ambassadors successfully advocated for an early-voting polling place on campus.
Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Vote Everywhere (VE) team at Western Carolina University (WCU) recently succeeded in bringing an early-voting polling place to campus in time for the November 2016 election. With the help of the Andrew Goodman Foundation (AGF) and campus organizations, the VE team, along with Dr. Lane Perry and three student representatives of the Democratic, Republican and unaffiliated party, successfully presented their case to the Jackson County Board of Elections (BOE) on May 31st. Along with a team of WCU students, the group’s efforts were also supported by Republican North Carolina State Senator Tom Apodaca and former Democratic North Carolina Representative Joe Sam Queen.
Joanna Woodson, WCU’s founding Ambassador and team leader, first became impassioned about making a difference in the American voting process after experiencing issues with her healthcare during the summer of 2015, which left her financially and mentally debilitated. It was only after she began working at WCU’s Center for Service Learning (CSL) office, and learned about AGF’s Vote Everywhere program, that she felt empowered to truly do something about her concerns. “One of my biggest passions in life is healthcare reform and you cannot have healthcare reform without the vote. I think a lot of people take that for granted. They don’t realize that their everyday life is shaped by policy, which is why voting is so important,” says Joanna.
Woodson first heard about AGF from Dr. Lane Perry. Dr. Perry, WCU’s VE Campus Champion, was looking for the first VE Ambassador and noticed Woodson’s passion for politics and civic engagement right away. Perry directed Joanna to S. Nadia Hussain, AGF’s former Program Director, who helped channel Woodson’s passion and mold her into the civic leader that she is today. “AGF not only shaped the outcome for our entire community, it also directly shaped the course of my own career,” says Woodson. “AGF is a vital ingredient to everything we have achieved.”
“Voting, unfortunately, has never been something that has come inherently easy in this country. Revolutionists, non-landowners, African Americans, women, they all had to fight for their inalienable right to the vote,” adds Emma Tate, who joined the WCU Vote Everywhere team in hopes of defending the vote on campus. “Just because it has gotten easier to vote doesn’t meant the fight is over. North Carolina’s previous attempts to pass legislation that limits our access to the ballot is what ignited my fire to join AGF.”
WCU’s VE team was determined to create a polling place on campus due to the inaccessibility of their district’s polling site. The school is located in a rural area, which made the trip to vote either difficult or impossible for many students and community members. With no public transportation option, only the students allowed to have cars on campus (about 50% of the student body), were able to get to the polling place safely. The rest of the students were forced to walk along the side of major highways without sidewalks, risking their safety.
The team also recognized that even students who physically made it to the polling site were not guaranteed a vote. With a strict Voter ID law in place, students who did not have the necessary documents would be turned away and most likely not come back to try again.
Trying to bring an early-voting polling site to campus before the election was an extensive, time-sensitive process. “This process was one of the most rigorous undertakings I have ever attempted,” says Woodson. The WCU Vote Everywhere team set a one-week deadline during finals to gain 1,000 signatures in support of the on-campus polling site. They had to lobby campus administration to persuade them the idea was sound, establish the necessities that are enforced at polling locations, such as parking and room requirements, and convince the Jackson County BOE.
25% of Jackson County’s voters consists of WCU students therefore bringing a polling place to campus was a necessary step to increase local civic engagement. In the end, 2,750 early ballots were cast at the WCU early-voting polling site. The VE team also successfully registered 570 new voters since the Voter ID law was repealed prior to the election. The WCU early-voting polling site outpaced all but one other early vote locations in Jackson County and that was the Board of Elections polling site, which opened a week earlier.
“Our team is thrilled with the results. Even though it wasn’t easy, this process showed me that building relationships and connecting all departments, organizations, students, and people can really make a difference,” adds Woodson. “Even though we were successful, our work is far from over. Next, we want to advocate for voter registration to become a standard component of new student orientation on campus. We also want to push for online voter registration in North Carolina as a whole.”