With the Nov. 5 general election just over a month away, and the Oct. 15 voter registration deadline only two weeks away, student groups are working to make sure all those eligible to vote are registered. In Virginia, all 100 House of Delegates seats and all 40 Senate seats are up for grabs, though there are no federal offices on the ballot this year.
During National Voter Registration Day last week, Student Council, University Democrats, College Republicans, the University Center for Politics, University Libraries and NextGen America teamed up to register students to vote all around Grounds. On Central Grounds, volunteers were stationed at Newcomb Hall, Observatory Hill Dining Hall, South Lawn and Engineer's Way.
“It was wonderful to work alongside other UVA organizations since encouraging voter registration at the same time meant we could amplify each other's voices throughout the day,” said Amber Reichert, University Libraries content strategist. “I look forward to working alongside other U.Va. groups to make voting second nature to members of our community.”
Virginia Chambers, campaigns chair for University Democrats and a fourth-year College student, said 200 people were registered to vote that day.
During move-in weekend in August, University Democrats, College Republicans and Student Council collaborated to register 475 voters.
“We provided them with information about where their polling place is [and corrected] misconceptions,” said Alex Hendel, Student Council vice chair of legislative affairs and Batten graduate student.
The groups have pursued voter registration initiatives on their own as well. Hendel said Student Council volunteers have registered voters in classrooms and residence halls. Meanwhile, University Democrats host registration drives around lunchtime on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, during which they register a few dozen voters, Chambers said. College Republicans has been registering people near first-year residence halls and around Central Grounds.
“We're going to have our own voter registration efforts in the future because we need to continue registering students to vote until the deadline,” said Matthew Nalls, College Republicans president and third-year College student.
Compared to midterm and presidential elections, off-year elections such as this year generally do not receive high turnout. According to records provided by Jamie Virostko, assistant registrar with the Charlottesville Office of Elections and Voter Registration, total voter turnout among 18, 19- to 21-year-olds and 22- to 25-year-olds registered to vote in Charlottesville in the 2017 general election — the most recent off-year election — was lower than in the 2016 and 2018 general elections.
Neither the Charlottesville office nor the Albemarle County Registrar’s Office track whether a voter is a student or not when they register to vote or cast their ballot.
At Charlottesville’s student-heavy Venable precinct in 2017, 0.8 percent of 18-year-olds registered to vote there turned out, as did 46.4 percent of 19- to 21-year-olds and 20.9 percent of 22- to 25-year-olds. At Charlottesville’s Alumni Hall precinct, which also draws in many students, 17.1 percent of 18-year-olds registered to vote there turned out, as did 35.6 percent of 19- to 21-year-olds and 33.1 percent of 22- to 25-year-olds.
In 2018, of those registered to vote at Venable, 8.6 percent of 18-year-olds, 85.5 percent of 19- to 21-year-olds and 22.6 percent of 22- to 25-year olds turned out to vote. Of those registered to vote at Alumni Hall, 68.9 percent of 18-year-olds, 66.2 percent of 19 to 21-year-olds and 39.2 percent of 22- to 25-year-olds showed up.
“We have a really important election coming up and everyone has the opportunity to use their voice to have a say in how our government operates for the Senate, for the next four years, and for the House of Delegates, for the next two years,” Chambers said. “And so it's exciting to hear about the flashy presidential election, but we have another really meaningful election before then.”
By the numbers
A report released by the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement in September revealed that the student voting rate at the University in 2018 was higher than the average student voting rate at other universities studied in 2018. Whereas at the University, the voting rate among eligible students was 45.8 percent in 2018, the average voting rate at other participating institutions that year was 39.1 percent. 39.6 percent of University undergraduate students voted, compared to 44.2 percent of University graduate students, though this rate does not account for ineligible voters, such as non-citizens.
As of Friday, 2,567 people have active registration to vote at Venable and 2,802 people have active registration to vote at Alumni Hall. A voter may be flagged as inactive, Virostko said, if the mail sent by the registrar’s office has been returned as undeliverable and the voter has not voted in two federal elections. It does not mean the voter is unregistered, however. But if the voter does not respond to attempts by the State Board of Elections and the individual registrars to get in contact and obtain confirmation of the address, they will be purged from the voter rolls.
The numbers of registrants, of course, can change over the next several weeks.
At the last off-year election, in 2017, 2,813 people were registered to vote at Venable at the time of election day and 3,022 people were registered to vote at Alumni Hall. In 2018, those numbers rose very slightly to 2,871 registered to vote at Venable and 3,067 registered to vote at Alumni Hall. Yet the turnout rate jumped from 30.96 percent to 47.27 percent at Venable and 47.25 percent to 57.32 percent at Alumni Hall.
In Albemarle County — where many other students are registered to vote, especially those living on-Grounds — 3,687 people have active registration to vote at Slaughter Recreation Center, the county’s University precinct.
Albemarle County registrar Jake Washburne estimated more than half of those who vote at Slaughter are students.
“It's tough to be exactly precise, because we are we don't have anything,” Washburne said. “We don't classify them by their student status … but just because of the shape of the precinct and the residential structures in the precinct, I would say well over half of the registered voters in the University precinct are University students. There are a few … residential neighborhoods within the precinct, but I think it is mostly students.”
Washburne called the boundary lines that carve out the University “squiggle-squaggles,” in that some of the University is considered part of Charlottesville, an independent city in Albemarle County, and some of it is Albemarle County proper. These boundaries determine whether someone votes at Alumni Hall, Venable Elementary School, Slaughter Recreation Center or elsewhere.
Last year, Washburne said, Slaughter drew 2,333 voters — 45 percent of registered voters at the time of the election.
“We encourage everybody who's eligible to get registered to vote and vote,” Washburne said. “So I hope that happens.”
But, he said, make sure to check whether your address is in Albemarle County or Charlottesville City and what precinct you are registered to vote at, to avoid an election day mishap.
“Every year, inevitably, a few will show up at Slaughter Rec,” Washburne said. “And we look them up in the phone book, and say, ‘Sorry, you know, you gotta go down the street to Alumni Hall,’ and vice versa. But the best thing to do is to have them check, and they can check it online before election day what precinct they're registered at.”
Representatives from organizations registering voters said many students have misconceptions about voter registration — one being that the process to register to vote is lengthy, according to Nalls.
“It's fairly quick to register to vote,” Nalls said. “And to me, I think that that's incredibly valuable, because voting is such a special power that we have to hold our own government accountable.”
Washburne said the process is straightforward. When registering to vote, he said, one must give their name and residence address; affirm U.S. citizenship; certify that they will be at least 18 by the November general election; verify that they have not been convicted of a felony or, if they have, that they have had their rights restored; and sign and date the application.
Nalls said that the State Board of Elections provides the registration forms to groups registering voters, after which the groups give students forms to fill out and then send the forms to the board. The board then mails students confirmation of their registration. All volunteers must complete a training module from the Virginia Department of Elections before registering others to vote.
Another misconception, Hendel said, is that one cannot register to vote until they are 18.
“In Virginia, if you'll be 18 by the general election, and you're a citizen of the United States, and you're a resident of Virginia, you can vote here,” Hendel said.
He said that out-of-state students or those not from Charlottesville can still register to vote in Charlottesville with their school address.
“If you live there, then you are able to vote there,” Chambers added.
Students may also choose to vote at home or absentee with their home address. The last misconception Hendel said was that if students have class on Election Day, they simply cannot vote. In fact, he said, students who have class on Election Day can vote absentee even if they are registered in Charlottesville.
On Tuesday, the Center for Politics hosted a meeting with University Democrats, College Republicans, University Libraries, the Charlottesville registrar and the Albemarle County registrar to discuss voter registration and student engagement.
Glenn Crossman, programs director for the Center, said in an interview before the meeting that he believed it would be helpful for those registering voters to get each others’ contact information and exchange ideas for voter registration.
“We want to encourage that [voter registration is] still student-run,” Crossman said. “But we're there to just answer questions ... there’s so many student questions, they want to know if they're registered in the state. Can they register here? How do you do that? It may seem basic to a very engaged student, but it's not obvious to a lot of people.”
Nalls said he appreciates the fact that groups from various political and apolitical affiliations work together to register voters.
“I think the collaboration in voter registration is actually the beauty of our country,” Nalls said. “I think basic freedoms and rights that we have should come before any political affiliation … I hope that collaboration continues.”
People who register to vote for the Nov. 5 election will stay registered for the 2020 presidential primary March 3.