‘A culture of voting’: On Election Day, turnout at polling places at and near VCU was up 71%

A student volunteer assisting a classmate to register to vote.
NextGen Virginia holds a voter registration drive for VCU students on National Voter Registration Day in September 2018, ahead of the mid-term congressional election. (Kevin Morley, University Relations)

In 2015, the last time Virginia’s full General Assembly was up for election, the three polling places at which Virginia Commonwealth University students generally vote saw a turnout of 20%, with 1,649 votes cast.

On Nov. 5, turnout at the VCU voter precincts — now including a fourth that opened in University Student Commons in 2017 — jumped to 29%, with 2,817 total votes cast, marking a 71% increase in just four years.

“Civic engagement for college students is increasing exponentially,” said Honors College student Faizaan Khan, a junior biomedical engineering major who is interning with the Campus Election Engagement Project, focused on VCU voter registration and engagement. “Students are starting to understand the responsibility they have as the future of America and are rising to the occasion to ensure they are heard. VCU specifically has had a significant increase in voter engagement as more people are realizing the weight of their vote and voice.”

The growing level of VCU voter turnout in this year’s election builds on a steady trend of recent years. On Tuesday, VCU was recognized with a “gold seal” award from the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge for having a 2018 campus voting rate between 40% and 49% in the 2018 midterm election.

In 2018, 48.6% of registered VCU voters cast a ballot, compared with the national voting rate of 39.1% across all college campuses, according to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement conducted by the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life.

Driving the trend is an ongoing effort by VCU Votes — a network of VCU students, faculty and staff dedicated to promoting voter engagement on campus — to coordinate campus-wide voter engagement events, provide voter education, and work to make VCU the most voter-friendly campus it can be.

“It’s everyone’s civic duty to be engaged in the democratic process. We’re not going to have a healthy democracy unless everyone is engaged in the process,” said Jacqueline Smith-Mason, Ph.D., co-chair of the VCU Votes Advisory Council and senior associate dean and director of academic and faculty affairs for the Honors College. “Sometimes students have felt that their votes don’t count — and all of us can be cynical at times when we look at what's happening in our government — but our students recognize the importance of being engaged in the process.”

VCU Votes has helped organize voter registration efforts, and held events such as a registration drive at the Compass on National Voter Registration Day, a movie screening of the documentary “Rigged: The Voter Suppression Playbook,” and a discussion on women and voting rights around the world.

“Because VCU is an urban university, our students live, learn and work throughout the metro Richmond area. They are an integral part of the Richmond community and they care deeply about its future,” said Lynn E. Pelco, Ph.D., associate vice provost for community engagement and director of VCU’s Service-Learning Office. “From climate change to student loan debt to gun control, many of the issues facing our state government officials directly impact students. VCU students are invested in finding solutions to these and other problems, and exercising their right to vote is just one way they are acting as engaged citizens.”

In addition to the Campus Election Engagement Project, VCU Votes also has worked in partnership with the Andrew Goodman Foundation, a nonprofit that supports youth leadership development, voting accessibility and social justice initiatives on campuses across the country. The VCU Division of Student Affairs has also worked with the Campus Vote Project, which aims to reduce barriers to voting and empower students with the information they need to register and vote. NextGen Virginia registered voters and provided information on campus, and gave VCU students rides to polling places on Election Day.

“I started trying to help raise our voter turnout at AGF, especially with students, because I was fed up with the stereotypes of young people who never vote and complain about their government leaders,” said Andrew Goodman Foundation Vote Everywhere ambassador Matt Tessema, co-chair of VCU Votes and a sophomore journalism major and Honors College student. “I wanted to show people who believe that Gen-Z are uninterested and civically disconnected that we care and should be catered to in government because we make a difference (as shown in the last election) but we simply lacked the education on proper voting procedures.”

Civic engagement for college students is increasing exponentially. Students are starting to understand the responsibility they have as the future of America and are rising to the occasion to ensure they are heard.

Voter turnout was up across Virginia in this year’s election, as nearly 40% of voters statewide cast ballots, up from 29% in 2015. And turnout was notably high on Virginia college campuses, according to an analysis of election results conducted by students in Data Journalism and Visualization, a course taught by Jeff South, a professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“We’re seeing both more students on the registration rolls and more students exercising their right to vote,” said South, whose students also conducted the analysis of the VCU voter precinct results. “At VCU, I think it reflects the university’s efforts to get more students registered in Richmond and then it reflects the get-out-the-vote efforts.”

Students in the Robertson School’s Capital News Service course, taught by Assistant Professor Karen McIntyre, Ph.D., and instructors Alix Bryan and Veronica Garabelli, also contributed to those efforts by putting together an election guide for VCU and other college campuses across the commonwealth.

“Every politician is looking at the data. If they can see that students or a particular age group are engaged, then they're going to start paying attention to the issues that are important to them,” Smith-Mason said. “I think students have that foresight. They can see that their vote does count and it does matter and that issues of concern to them can be addressed.”

Erin Webster Garrett, Ph.D., assistant vice provost for REAL, said VCU’s high level of voter engagement reflects the university’s REAL initiative, in which all VCU students engage in hands-on learning experiences that contribute to their intellectual, professional and personal development as they build lives of meaning and careers of purpose.

“When students come to VCU, they know they have arrived somewhere special, a place where they will have multiple opportunities to create change and tackle the issues which affect them personally and professionally. Yes, they care deeply, and, just as important, they come here seeking ways to turn that care into positive action,” Garrett said. “At VCU, we are committed to providing opportunities that will help them connect the dots between what they are learning in the classroom and the actions it will take to build the future they want for themselves and for their communities.”

Looking ahead to next year’s presidential election, VCU voter engagement is expected to be even more intense.

“I would expect a whole lot more in 2020,” South said. “When we get to the presidential race, we’re going to see a huge turnout.”

VCU Votes is planning to continue its voter engagement work in the year ahead, and aims to expand its efforts across both campuses, Smith-Mason said.

“We really want to create a culture of voting among our students,” she said.

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