By LAURA SCHNEIDER & ALLISON TOVEY
Contributing Writer & Senior Writer
When students arrive on campus in the fall, they are often approached by people carrying clipboards on Campus Walk or at the University Center, asking them to register to vote.
The first thing students have to decide is whether to register with a school address or to vote absentee. Students do not receive guidance on which to choose. If they vote in Fredericksburg, they can help decide on local candidates whose decisions can affect them while they are in college.
If they vote absentee, they lose their ability to impact the political environment nearest to their university. Those who register at their school address, might also run into problems. At UMW, some on campus residential addresses fall under three different voting precincts causing students confusion about where to vote.
“Where you live affects who you vote for and who represents you,” said Marc Hoffman, the General Registrar for the City of Fredericksburg.
Hoffman said that the first time students vote in college is important and can set a track record for the rest of their lives. If a voting experience doesn’t go well the first time, it might prevent people from seeking another in the future.
“There’s a lot of information that’s being jammed in,” said Hoffman. “You’re a new resident of Fredericksburg, you’re a new member of the Mary Washington community, you have classes and groups and all this stuff is competing for your time and interest and energy. And by the way, you need to register to vote. It’s a one-minute conversation amongst really intensely stimulating conversation and details that are coming in to your life. If it’s not done right, it’s hard to revisit.”
Rachael Powell, a senior accounting major, agreed.
“You’re just so busy that it’s hard to keep well-informed enough that you feel good enough voting,” said Powell.
In 2016, Northern Illinois University conducted a study to determine how easy it is in each state to cast a ballot. Virginia was ranked 49th.
Hoffman has heard from students who ran into problems on voting day because they were unclear which precinct they should vote in.
In order for students to successfully vote in Fredericksburg, they have to register with an address approved by the city. For most students living in on-campus residence halls, putting 1301 College Ave. on their registration is acceptable.
Powell, who lives in Roanoke, Va., registered to vote in Fredericksburg during her freshman year during which time she wasn’t sure which address to list on her form. The volunteers at the booth instructed her to put 1301 College Ave., which the city accepted.
According to Hoffman, students living in the William St. Apartments and Eagle Landing have to list their specific apartment number or 1101 Jefferson Davis Highway.
Districting lines split up on-campus residence halls, the William St. Apartments, and Eagle Landing. As a result, each falls under a different voting precinct. These lines were drawn in 2010, before the construction of Eagle Landing and when the William St. Apartments were not part of the school. Because these locations are so close to each other, students don’t think to update their voter registration.
That is, until they run into problems on election day.
Students who attempt to vote in the wrong precinct will have the option to cast a provisional ballot. These ballots are given to voters whose eligibility to vote cannot be proven when they arrive at the polls. However, according to the Virginia Department of Elections, if a voter casts a provisional ballot because they are at the wrong polling place and are not able to get to the correct polling place, their vote will not be counted.
The chances of a provisional ballot not being counted adds to the confusion surrounding the voting process at college
Junior English: creative writing major Daley Jennings had to cast a provisional ballot after difficulties determining where she was registered after she renewed her ID.
“I got this thing in the mail that said I was registered both places so I assumed I could vote in either place,” said Jennings. “I tried to vote in Fredericksburg at the end of last semester and I went into a different line because they couldn’t find my information,”
Jennings went on to add that, “During spring break, I got a letter in the mail that said my vote didn’t count.”
According to Hoffman, students who have not updated their registration address after moving across campus will still be able to successfully cast a ballot since there is no way to tell they are in the wrong precinct. However, this means they are potentially voting for candidates who are not representing their district.
Students who request absentee ballots from their hometown also run into potential problems. They must follow the ballot guidelines exactly, or else their vote won’t be counted. Whether it’s not being able to provide a copy of an acceptable federal ID for first-time voters, not having a witness sign the ballot, or even just forgetting to check one single box, their vote won’t count. First-time voters often feel more assured if they visit a precinct in person.
The district lines are scheduled to be redrawn in 2020, and there is a push for UMW to be included as a whole in one precinct and district, according to Hoffman.
In 2016, 86.7 percent of UMW students registered to vote in Fredericksburg, according to a report done by the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement. Despite these high numbers, the voting turnout of registered students that year was only 76.8 percent.
According to the Virginia Department of Elections, about 64,000 students requested absentee ballots in the 2016 November General Election. There were a total of 616,766 absentee voters in Virginia in that election.
As stated in the NSLVE study, even though students run into problems voting, UMW’s voting rate was actually the highest out of all Virginia universities in 2016. UMW’s voting rate in 2016 was 66.6 percent, followed by Northwestern University at 65 percent and George Mason University at 64.9 percent.
Even then, students at UMW don’t “express as much interest in the midterms” as they do in presidential elections, according to the NSLVE study. In the 2014 midterms, for example, UMW’s voting turnout was only 19.2 percent.
Another problems students face when voting is setting aside time when they have classes, jobs, and extracurricular activities. It’s even more of a struggle for students to vote if they don’t have a car.
Powell said that when she voted, she took a carpool arranged by students on campus. She pointed out that transportation is a big factor in whether students go out to vote.
“If they have a car, I think it’s easy,” Powell said. “If they don’t, it’s a little bit harder. Especially because you don’t know where you’re going, or if you know friends with cars, but then, you still have to arrange rides. So, I think it really depends on if you have a car or not.”
The UMW political clubs, Young Democrats and College Republicans, offer ride services to the polls on election day. Despite these services being available, it is unclear if they take into account the three different precincts dividing campus. In regards to these issues, both clubs were reached out to for comment but neither responded in time for publication.
In order to help increase voting rates, UMW has adopted a policy to have classes canceled on Election Day to give students the chance to go out and vote.
According to an article published in the Blue & Gray Press on March 20, 2019 by Ashley Utz, this policy originated from a petition calling for a Day on Democracy that was sent out to students, faculty, and staff in May 2018. The petition proposed “the cancelation of all classes to allow for involvement in our democratic process throughout the day” in order to “to encourage civic engagement on campus and in the broader Fredericksburg community.”
A total of 625 members of the UMW community signed the petition: 548 students, 40 faculty, 7 staff, and 30 alumni.
This proposal lets students participate on Election Day in multiple ways. Utz said that even if students are unable to vote or don’t wish to vote, Day on Democracy still gives them the chance to participate in other activities organized by non-profit organizations. Students could also work at the polls through the Fredericksburg registrar.
The Day on Democracy is important for the UMW community because it gives students a chance to express their voice without having to worry about their classes, homework, and extracurricular activities getting in the way.
“The future of American democracy is threatened daily by polarization and apathy,” said Utz in her article. “Lack of time to address these issues creates a cycle of democratic inactivity, especially for students. Voting is for all of us, but we must invest in it – and UMW could be a trailblazer among institutions of higher education by committing to civic engagement in the long-term.”
Hoffman agrees with Utz’s statements.
“The best you can do is constantly communicate, try to educate, and encourage people to be engaged. What I don’t want to have happen, is people to get discouraged, and as a result, have a sour view of elections when they’re first getting engaged in them,” said Hoffman.