College students hoping to vote in the Nov. 3 general election will undoubtedly face challenges going to the polls or voting by mail in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. As schools change campus layouts and academic calendars, it remains uncertain whether students and universities will be able to adjust in time as many students choose a candidate for president for the first time.
“So I’d say election years typically are kind of chaotic and in the sense that there’s just a lot going on and that we are trying our best, students, faculty and staff to make sure our students have all the information and materials they need to cast their vote, because the rules change every year. And just making sure that you reach the full student body is a challenge,” said Ashley Moraguez, associate professor of political science at UNCA and faculty advisor to the Political Science Club.
Young Americans consistently vote in the lowest percentage of registered voters, according to Pew Research Center. People ages 18 to 23 in November 2020 will likely only make up 1/10 eligible voters. With universities canceling in-person classes and sending students back to their corners of the country, it can be unclear where or how to vote, which could prevent an already apathetic voter base of millions from voting. There are steps government officials can take to allow easier voting access to college students such as allowing universal mail-in voting, but the onus falls primarily on grassroots student activism and university-sponsored programs for voter participation.
In past elections, UNC Asheville worked in conjunction with student organizations like the political science club, the College Republicans and the Student Government Association to prepare a series of voter registration events that inform students about rule changes and encourage unregistered students to vote. According to faculty advisors to these groups, the pandemic has restricted these events in size and scope and made information about voting available predominantly online.
“We’d have tables at six different locations, I am able to recruit like 50 to 60 student volunteers, they register voters from nine to five that whole day. We give out pizza and cupcakes and it’s just a whole big to-do,” Moraguez said. “This year, as things stand currently, some student organization tabling will be allowed in Highsmith or on Reed Plaza outside Brown Hall, at least last I heard that was still the plan. So we might be able to do some limited in-person voter registration in person like that. But of course, everybody would be in a mask. We have to socially distance, which isn’t ideal if you’re trying to register a bunch of people at one time.”
In response to these challenges, members of the Political Science Club said they adapted with the resources available such as the newly created online voter registration form from the North Carolina Board of Elections. This new form of voter registration supplements the lack of in-person registration at the DMV and events like ones seen in the past on campus. The online form requires a valid North Carolina drivers license or North Carolina issued identification.
SGA and other student organizations are also in the process of creating a voting resource and information hub online called UNCA Votes. It will include links to important forms for voter registration and absentee ballot requests, Moraguez said.
“This is a page right off the main UNCA page, that will be a one stop place that students or any community members, and so I don’t mean just the campus community, or wider community could go to, to find out how to register to vote, what the options for voting are, how to vote absentee, what early voting is, how to find your polling location, navigating election day, how to find a sample ballot, how to decipher if something’s fake news, you name it, and we’re basically putting it on this website just so that people have a place to go,” she said.
In North Carolina, registered voters can vote in-person on Election Day, request an absentee ballot or vote at a designated One-Stop Early Voting site. For students looking to vote early, rooms in the Highsmith Student Union will be converted into polling locations when the early voting period begins on Oct. 15 and ends Oct. 31.
North Carolina absentee voting allows all registered voters to vote through the mail after a signed and completed State Absentee Ballot Request Form is received by the county board of elections office no later than 5 p.m. on the Tuesday before the date of the election. There is no excuse needed to request absentee.
“I think voting absentee is the safest way to vote in terms of the pandemic because you’re putting yourself at the least exposure to others who may have grown a virus,” Moraguez said. “I recommend that by mid September, everyone should be considering requesting that absentee ballot just in case because you don’t want to be in a position where you don’t get your ballot in time. If you find yourself in a position where you were sent back because school shuts down, you can go early vote there and just update your voter registration to your permanent address rather than here.”
The UNCA campus is part of the voting precinct 28.1, which envelops all campus buildings and housing along with the Jackson Park neighborhood and wealthy communities surrounding the Omni Grove Park Hotel. On-campus residents voting on Election Day will vote at the Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church as their polling location, a short half mile walk from campus.
According to UNCA enrollment records, on-campus residents only account for 44.7 percent of the total student population, while the remaining 53.3 percent commute. Hundreds of off-campus students live in the Verge apartment complex or University Place apartments, both of which are a half mile from the UNCA campus. Both apartment complexes are excluded from the 28.1 voting precinct despite the close proximity. University Place is within 1,000 feet of Covenant Reformed Presbyterian but residents must vote at a polling location 3 miles away.
“I think if you looked over the history of North Carolina, you would find that both political parties have at least gerrymandered which is a way to disenfranchise,” said Alvis Dunn, associate professor of history at UNCA.
In the past decade, the Buncombe County Board of Elections redistricting has interfered with college voters on several occasions. During the 2012 election, a redistricting process cut the campus of Warren Wilson College in half, invalidating the voter registration address of 1,000 students. In 2018, a voting district on UNCA’s campus cut across Ponder Hall causing confusion about the proper polling place to attend.
“In the point of view of democratic republican electoral government, the idea that the poor kid casting a vote that had the same way as a rich person is dangerous,” Dunn said. “There’s always a lot more poor people so if you had a legitimate democratic republican government, what would keep the poor people from voting to redistribute?”
Apart from the persistent pandemic, election years bring about a fair share of controversy from the political rhetoric and actions made by candidates, said Giovanny Pleites-Hernandez, lecturer of political science at UNCA. The already present fears of votes being tallied incorrectly and the possibility of voter disenfranchisement loomed large even before the virus hit.
Currently, these worries are being exacerbated as President Donald Trump continuously sows doubts about the integrity of mail-in ballots and spouts untrue statements about voter fraud, while Democrats express doubt about the United States Postal Service’s ability to deliver an expected surge of mail-in ballots.
“I’m a lot less worried now that we saw the postmaster general say within the last week that the cuts that were going into effect are going to be stopped. And also stopping any changes to the sorting machines in the offices, so that makes me a little less concerned,” Pleites-Hernandez said.
He recommends caution when interpreting stories from the news and social media. Voter turnout is high during presidential elections and 2020 could shatter records after a four decade high of voters turned out for the midterm elections in 2018. When turnout is high, enthusiasm and strong emotions about the issues can lead to misunderstandings about the facts.
“Strive to have a balanced information diet. And if you are only looking at things, be it through algorithms, or through personal choice, you’re only being exposed to ideas that are compatible with your own, then I think that leads to some issues down the line,” Pleites-Hernandez said.