Voters between the ages of 18 and 29 turned out in record numbers this year, helped in part by efforts from administrators and activists to help North Carolina college students navigate voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.
College students took advantage of early voting at significantly higher rates this election — youth turnout in early and mail-in voting more than doubled compared to 2016.
“Our work really transitioned to a lot of digital and virtual engagement,” Alex Dennis, assistant director at the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement at East Carolina University, said. “While our students are taking a lot of online courses, our campus is not closed. Our one-stop voting site in the student center has been really popular.”
This was the first year that UNC had an on-campus precinct at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center. Nearly all major universities in North Carolina have an on-campus precinct this election. But for some, it has been a point of contention.
Appalachian State University administrators claimed the on-campus site would increase COVID-19 risks, while the Watauga County Board of Elections argued the site was very popular and was necessary to accommodate higher turnout.
“The student union has become ground zero for college students’ voting rights and just convenience,” ASU Student Body President Michael Davis said.
“I see this every election cycle, where the union voting site has been contentious,” Davis said. “It’s extremely convenient, and obviously, people in the community come to vote a lot too. You know, it’s a drop of blue in a sea of red. It’s interesting to see how it plays out.”
Over 83 percent of voters chose to vote by mail or early in person this year. Nicholas Batman, director of the Civic Engagement Action Coalition at the UNC Institute of Politics, said encouraging students to vote early was a focus of their get out the vote efforts.
“I think the primary thing we’ve been trying to do along with some other groups on campus is to really bring attention to early voting,” Batman said. “We have these two huge weeks where people can same-day register and vote with smaller lines and shorter waiting periods.”
College students are one of the only groups that can choose where they vote. Students have the option to either vote at their college address or at their home address.
Batman said he observed a lot of students choosing to vote at home rather than in Orange County.
“We’re seeing a lot of students start to vote in their home counties, and this is probably because North Carolina has one of the most dynamic political landscapes of any state," Batman said. "Every state senator matters, every state representative matters, every local policy maker matters.”
UNC senior Jonathan Sevier is one of those students. He went home to Iredell County to vote early.
“I could choose to register here or at home," he said, "but it seemed like a hassle to change registration addresses, and my home district was more purple, so I thought my vote would matter more there than here.”
Christina Farag, a UNC sophomore from New York, said she chose to vote on Election Day at the on-campus precinct at the Stone Center to avoid complication with mail-in voting.
"Just because of all the issues that were happening with the Postal Service and ballots not getting to where they're supposed to be. There was also a huge thing in New York, where like people's mail-in ballots just weren't getting there, and I didn't want to risk that happening," Farag said.
While all but one precinct had reported results to the North Carolina State Board of Elections by midnight on election night, an unknown number of mail-in ballots remain to be counted. And the extent to which these are ballots mailed by North Carolina college students remains to be seen.
Macki Snyder is an assistant director for Leadership & Outreach for the Appalachian & Community Together foundation at ASU. She said changes to the academic calendar made it difficult for student voters to plan ahead.
“We tried to have students think through what would be the best situation for them,” she said. “And it was really weird because of COVID and not knowing where they’d be at the time of voting.”
Dennis said while they let students know they could choose where to vote, they didn't encourage them to vote in a specific county.
“We let students know what their options are and encourage them to make the decision that’s best for them.”
David Richman contributed reporting.
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