A look at voter engagement efforts at U.Va., GMU and JMU

GMU and JMU have on-campus precincts

pollingstations_wikimedia commons

The University does not have an on-campus polling precinct like GMU and JMU and does not receive the same kind of administrative support.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Voter engagement efforts at Virginia’s public colleges like the University of Virginia, George Mason University and James Madison University have some differences. 

The University does not have an on-campus polling precinct like GMU and JMU and does not receive the same kind of administrative support, which takes the form of a Center for Civic Engagement with paid employees at JMU and an administration advisor at GMU.

University of Virginia 

At the University, the Student Council Legislative Affairs Committee is the primary organization that promotes civic engagement through voting among the student body. 

“On Grounds, our work primarily entails preparing students for Election Day through voter registration, get-out-the-vote initiatives, debate watching events and educating others on the importance of political awareness,” said Victoria Kasonde, a fourth-year College student and Legislative Affairs Committee co-chair.

According to Kasonde, the Legislative Affairs Committee was active in its get-out-the-vote initiative. It began with a “Look Hoos Voting” graphic on the Student Council Facebook page that highlighted information about polling locations, personal identification and transportation on Election Day.

During the week leading up to the election, the committee hosted a voter information table for students to ask any relevant questions about the voting process. Furthermore, the committee flyered, hung a banner in the Amphitheater and painted Beta Bridge to remind students to vote.

The committee was also active in registering voters at various locations around Grounds, and it created an FAQ about voting on its website.  

The Legislative Affairs Committee receives some support from the University administration for pushes for civic engagement. 

“Last year, we were able to receive …  Safe Ride vans from Parking and Transportation to help transport students to and from their polling location, and we are very grateful for that,” Kasonde said. “1,053 students were able to vote using the service. Imagine if we had additional vans or even a UTS bus. Of course, we have had some hurdles, like funding.” 

Fourth-year College student Elizabeth Parker is the co-chair with Kasonde on the Legislative Affairs Committee. 

Parker said that most of Legislative Affairs’ activities is funded by the Student Activities Fee, which is taken directly from student-paid tuition. According to Parker, Legislative Affairs’ civic engagement efforts are relatively low-cost financially, but require a lot of time. 

“The real cost is in time — as a student who is taking on what is a full-time job at many other universities, I have to dedicate an inordinate amount of time meeting with the local registrars' offices, compiling information for graphics, drafting school-wide emails and answering questions from fellow students who are confused about the voter registration process,” Parker said. 

George Mason University 

Looking at other Virginia universities, GMU provides financial and administrative support to students pushing get-out-the-vote initiatives. 

GMU Senior Joe Russell formerly served as the president of Mason Votes, a nonpartisan voter engagement organization. 

Mason Votes is a university-wide committee with representatives from GMU College Democrats, GMU College Republicans, student government, the student media, Virginia 21 and several other organizations.

“George Mason classifies us as a university-wide committee, which means that … we are a department at Mason without an office,” Russell said. “But because of that, that means that the financial support that Mason Votes receives comes from the University as opposed to funds that a student organization would need to raise.” 

Mason Votes organizes voter registration drives all over campus, coordinating these with on-campus groups like College Republicans and College Democrats along with other off-campus and campaign groups. Mason Votes also provides voter education materials. This includes voter registration receipts with information customized to the specific locations that GMU students will vote — both on and off campus. They also provide educational materials about absentee voting. 

After voter registration deadlines pass, Mason Votes hosts a debate between the campus Republicans and Democrats and update their website on different candidates’ positions and platforms in order to educate voters. 

On Election Day, Mason Votes conducts a big get-out-the-vote push. They decorate a path from the center of campus to the on-campus polling location with streamers, chalk and balloons. They also put door hangers on dorms, send out text and email reminders to vote, provide a help line to explain how to vote and work with the GMU Dining facilities to provide discounts on meals for students wearing “I Voted” stickers. 

Mason Votes also pushed for an on-campus voting precinct. Up until 2011, Mason Votes was giving students rides to off-campus polling places. After Mason Votes proved to the county the utility of providing students a way to vote on campus, the county installed a precinct on campus. 

Russell said Mason Votes’ efforts to increase student voting has been successful, especially after the voting precincts were put on campus. About half of GMU students who live on-campus are registered to vote at the on-campus precinct.

According to Russell, in the first election in 2011 with an on-campus polling place, only 74 students used this precinct. 

“Since then we’ve seen turnout regularly increase to last year when we had about 2500 people out of about 6000 eligible voters, so 6000 folks like on campus,” Russell said. “Even in the weird local elections we regularly have close to about 500 students show up to vote.”

Mason Votes also receives support from GMU administrator Alissa Karton, who is the assistant to the vice president and director of special projects at GMU and also serves on the Mason Votes committee. 

“She is the one who handles finances for us and helps us with procuring things,” Russell said. “But honestly, any and all supplies for Mason Votes, any reservations that need to happen all go directly come from her out of the President’s office.” 

Karton said that rather than directing students about what they should focus on, she acts more as a facilitator for what students perceive as their needs. 

“The ideal situation, in my opinion, is for students to take the lead in getting their peers engaged and university administration to provide needed support as indicated and requested by students,” Karton said. 

James Madison University 

JMU’s administration also supports its students’ civic engagement efforts. 

Jewel Hurt is a junior in the College of Arts and Letters at JMU and also serves as president of the Student Government Association. The student government oversees two initiatives — the Legislative Action Committee and Dukes Vote — to help increase civic engagement. Dukes Vote was started about three years ago, according to Hurt. 

A few years ago, the chair of the Legislative Action Committee successfully lobbied the local government for a voting precinct at JMU. 

“There was a lot of pushback from the local government at first,” Hurt said. “They didn't know if it was really necessary, so the administration helped to get it off the ground, and they really supported the student who was working to make this happen.” 

The JMU administration also fully funds all the polling booths and any necessary expenses for the precinct. 

Additionally, JMU opened a Center for Civic Engagement in the fall of this year and hired staff to direct it. It is currently brainstorming what their efforts at JMU will look like while simultaneously supporting the student government’s voter registration efforts. 

The opening of this office and these employees’ wages are fully funded by the JMU administration, according to Hurt. 

Unlike both GMU and U.Va., JMU was one of 82 campuses in the U.S. that was voted as a “Voter Friendly Campus” by Voter Friendly Campus

“I absolutely think that JMU has done a phenomenal job on modeling how a university should respond and engage with students regarding civic life,” Hurt said. “I think that it’s really important, especially when you go to a liberal arts institution, and you’re focused on making a person holistic in a sense, I think that civic engagement is so important and it’s key in that mission.”

Looking forward at U.Va. 

Parker said she thinks the University’s administration could play a larger role in supporting student civic engagement efforts. 

“At the end of the day, this isn't the responsibility that should fall solely on a student — notwithstanding all of the legal concerns,” Parker said. “It also creates problems in terms of institutionalization — once I graduate in May I'm taking everything I've learned about voting at U.Va. with me and students in later years will have to re-learn all of the nuances that I've spent years witnessing firsthand.”

Parker specifically mentioned the need for more polling precincts. 

“Something I would love to have more administration support on is adjusting the polling locations for students,” Parker said. “Students currently have six polling locations in two different localities around Charlottesville and it would be great to have an ally in the administration to hone in on creating one or two precincts for students.” 

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