Voting is complicated. Before You Vote is a new podcast from The Daily Tar Heel's City and State desk breaking down all you need to know about voting before the 2020 election.
In its first episode, City and State Editor Sonia Rao talks with Joe Killian, an investigative reporter for NC Policy Watch, and Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina about the impact of the student vote in North Carolina.
This episode is produced by Meredith Radford.
The transcript of Tuesday’s episode is available below:
Sonia Rao: Voting is complicated, especially for college students, who are often first-time voters, or have just moved to a new county or state.
Voting during a pandemic is even more complicated.
In North Carolina, not only will we be voting to elect our next President, but there are many statewide and local races on the ballot that will directly impact college students.
One of these is the race for The North Carolina General Assembly.
I’m Sonia Rao, the City & State Editor for The Daily Tar Heel. Welcome to Before You Vote, where we’ll be breaking down what you need to know about voting every Tuesday for the next 8 weeks.
Students at UNC, and across the UNC System, at schools like N.C. State University and Appalachian State University, have expressed frustration at how their schools have handled the COVID-19 pandemic.
But who controls these schools? And how are they elected? I talked to Joe Killian, an investigative reporter at N.C. Policy Watch, to find out.
Joe Killian: I mean, when I was a student at a UNC school, I didn't understand this. It wasn't until I was a reporter reporting on it for a daily newspaper, that I did. The 17-campus University of North Carolina system is ultimately governed by the UNC Board of Governors. The UNC Board of Governors is a body that is made up entirely of political appointees, and the General Assembly, members of the General Assembly, nominate and vote upon and appoint the Board of Governors. So the Board of Governors hires the UNC president, they just hired a new one Peter Hans, they also hire, ultimately hire and fire and manage chancellors at each of the universities. Actually they just hired a chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz not that long ago, as the full time chancellor for Chapel Hill. So they are responsible for basically all the governance that happens at that level. And, you know, over the course of the existence of the Board of Governors, there have been various ideas about how involved they should be at the campus level, because every campus also has a board of trustees.
SR: The Board of Governors, which oversees the entire UNC System, also oversees UNC’s Board of Trustees, which is composed of 13 members. Eight of these members are elected by the Board of Governors, four are appointed by the N.C. General Assembly, and the last member is the president of student government.
Killian said the Board of Governors has shifted politically over the past decade.
JK: Right now there is not a single democrat on the, on the board of governors. There are a couple of members who are unaffiliated, but otherwise it is entirely Republican. I think one of the biggest things that people have pointed to is that on a board that’s that large, 24 members, depending upon how many are actively on the board, you’d think that you'd accidentally have a little bit of ideological spread. And to have a board that is entirely Republican, is not an accident, it doesn't happen accidentally. And, it also impacts the kinds of things they get into.
SR: The N.C. General Assembly is composed of the N.C. State Senate and State House of Representatives. In 2010, the general assembly shifted from Democratic to Republican, which Killian said has impacted the makeup of the Board of Governors, and how they govern UNC.
JK: When you have an argument, for instance, at the campus level, at Chapel Hill, over Silent Sam, the Confederate statue, and you have the administration saying one thing and the Board of Governors saying another about what should happen there and what is appropriate, then it's a huge conflict for the Board of Governors to, sort of, represent the will of the General Assembly on political issues. Also, like I said, funding of centers, academic centers of study, they've gotten rid of some of them that people thought were political. They've hired and fired people in political spats. The former chancellor Folt at UNC Chapel Hill, had conflict with the Board of Governors over Silent Sam and a couple of other things.
SR: UNC has been a center of national attention for the past month as the University shifted to remote learning less than two weeks after classes started and sent students in dorms home. The University opened even after receiving a recommendation from the Orange County Health Department to go online for the first five weeks of classes.
JK: The administration did not disclose that to the UNC community, did not disclose it even to the faculty, who had to read about it in media reports. So there we are. I mean, you have political appointees making a decision that is directly opposite what county health officials say is, is the safe way to go.
SR: In November, every seat in the state senate and house is up for re-election. That’s 170 seats. Killian said the election has the potential to change the way the Board of Governors works.
JK:It's worth mentioning that the Republican Party still has a majority in both the House and the Senate, but that majority is slim enough now, in the house, that it's not a veto proof majority, anymore. And that has made a, that has made a big difference in some policy things in North Carolina already, and should the democrats take one or both of the chambers of the NCGA in November then the way the Board of Governors is appointed, and who who was even nominated for the Board of Governors will change.
Even changing the level of majority in the General Assembly has had a huge change on the ability of a democratic governor to veto things and not have them immediately overturned, for instance. And it has also led to some things like not even getting a vote because they know they're going to be vetoed, and that they're not going to have the ability to overturn those vetoes. It's led to, you know, the way that we do the state budget, that process being very different and contentious, when it used to just steamroll through because one party was in charge of, you know, these processes. So that has been a huge change already. And there is no doubt that if democrats are involved in, you know, whether this is a good thing or not, is up to your own political, you know, sentiments, I guess, but there's no doubt that the way the Board of Governors are appointed in terms of who is nominated and who is ultimately appointed to the Board of Governors will change.
SR: So, elections are important - even statewide races like the general assembly have the potential to impact students. But, in the past few months, I’ve heard a lot of my friends and fellow students say that sometimes, they think their vote doesn’t matter. I talked to Bob Phillips, the executive director of Common Cause N.C., about the impact the student vote could have in November.
Bob Phillips: My name is Bob Phillips, and I am the executive director of Common Cause North Carolina. We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit Public Interest Group. This is our 50th anniversary celebration this year, founded in 1970. And essentially, we are dedicated to better democracy, more open, honest and accountable government and certainly, voting rights and encouraging people to vote is one of our big initiatives. We don’t tell how people to vote but we certainly want them to participate.
SR: Phillips said that young adults, aged 18-24, have the lowest voter participation rate of any demographic.
BP: I think it speaks to, probably more than anything, what people find and research, why people don’t vote, is a lack of information. And, I guess when you’re an 18-24 year old, particularly college students, certainly you’re smart, but you may not be thinking about all of the issues and may not be thinking about the many offices that are on the ballot.
SR: He said that besides the general assembly race, there are many other offices to pay attention to on the ballot.
BP: We do have what I think is the 3rd longest ballot in the country. There are a lot of offices that are on the ballot. And, that can be a bit daunting. And, if people are not as emotionally charged to cast a vote for the president, they may not turn out at all. Or, I suspect that we see a lot of what we would call drop off, with young people in particular. And that is, they may vote for president, they may vote for governor and they may vote for U.S. senate. But, beyond that they may not vote for anything else. And, that’s because they just don’t know: what are these offices, what do they do?
SR: And Phillips said it’s important that we know who our representatives are.
BP: Most people don't have any idea, you know, who their legislator or legislators are. But these people are incredibly important. And, for a UNC Chapel Hill student, these are the folks that decide the funding for that campus, they decide the tuition. They decide a lot of the policy, they appoint the people, what is called the UNC Board of Governors, that make a lot of decisions about how our public universities are going to operate including UNC Chapel Hill.
SR: North Carolina is a swing state for the November election. So I asked Phillips how the election could be impacted if every college student in the state were to vote.
BP: Well, let me give you an example. And for people who might be listening in on this UNC Chapel Hill students, I guess, back in 2008, when you and your peers might remember that election that was a historic Barack Obama first run for president. He won North Carolina by 13,000 votes out of nearly 5 million votes cast 13,000 votes separated he from John McCain, and it was the most I think it was the narrowest, if not the second narrowest margin of victory for Obama in a state, 13,000 votes. Obama lost every single age demographic in North Carolina in 2008. Every single age demographic, except one. The one, the one age demographic he won was the youth vote. He won big, and that was the difference. So if you've followed all that, that year, the youth vote in North Carolina decided the presidential race for this state. I don't think I mean, I remember the margin of how Obama beat McCain and the Electoral College. It wasn't that that was the difference maker. But again, young people, by turning out as much as they did 12 years ago, made the difference. And there's all kinds of examples. The governor, four years ago, beat incumbent Governor Pat McCrory, by I think 5000 votes, a very, very slim margin. Your vote does count. I guess that's the message out of all this.
SR: And while federal elections like the Presidential election are important, Killian emphasized the direct impact that local races have on college students in North Carolina.
JK: My perspective is that so much governing that really matters to peoples’ day-to-day lives, happens at the local county and state level, even though so much of our concentration is on Washington. And, I think that every now and then we get an event that brings that home to us. Like, for instance the fight over HB2 and transgender rights. I think that brought home to us that wherever we were, at a federal level, and at that time the Obama administration was extending and protecting trans rights in a way that had not been done before, if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on at the state level, at the local level, at the county level, then you’re still going to be blindsided by this kind of thing.
SR: There are 24 days left to register to vote in North Carolina. There are 30 days left until early voting starts. There are 42 days left to request an absentee ballot. And there are 49 days left until election day.
If you have any questions about voting you’d like us to answer, you can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tune in next Tuesday to learn more about the impact the coronavirus has had on the election.
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