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University effort pays off with big student-voter turnout in 2020

by Chuck Gordon

It’s voting day, whether you realize it or not. There aren’t any big races in Union County or North Carolina this year, so turnout is likely to be low, and that goes for Wingate students as well.

The good news is that voter registration among Wingate students rose significantly during last year’s highly charged presidential election. In addition, thanks to a push last year by several people on campus, Wingate students voted at a rate above the national average for college students.

Joseph Ellis head shot

Wingate’s overall registration rate rose from 83 percent in 2016 to 86 percent last year, according to the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, leading to a 66.9% voting rate among eligible Wingate students. Importantly, figures compiled by Dr. Joseph Ellis, associate professor of political science, show that in-person voting among Wingate students rose 272%.

“Last year was the first year since I’ve been on this campus that we made such a concerted effort to push students to register to vote and then turn out to vote,” says Dr. Chelsea Kaufman, assistant professor of political science. “With just one year of effort we saw that much increase, so I really think that if we build on that foundation, we can do even better.”

A multipronged effort spearheaded by Kaufman and Ellis started with Voting 101, a Lyceum in which Kaufman walked students through the process of registering to vote. The pair then enlisted the help of Wingate Athletics, the Student Government Association and other groups on campus to persuade students to register and then to go to the polls.

Kaufman worked with the nonprofit You Can Vote to produce a Wingate-specific video describing how to register. Ellis placed signs around campus and in the town of Wingate showing students how far a walk it was to the local voting precinct, the Wingate Community Center  a sort of trail of breadcrumbs leading to the voting booth.

Essentially, the political science department, the registrar, coaches and many others made it as simple as possible for students to vote.

Chelsea Kaufman head shot

“Look, it goes without saying that regardless of what we did or didn’t do in the fall of 2020, people were motivated to vote,” Ellis says. “But we made that process a bit easier by giving very explicit instructions, from the registrar on down, about how to go and either reregister or register for the first time at the Wingate Community Center.”

Ellis and Kaufman have even had a paper accepted by the journal PS: Political Science and Politics that outlines the University’s efforts to get out the vote.

The state of North Carolina made their job easier, Ellis says, by enabling same-day registration – meaning students can register at the Wingate precinct on the day they plan to vote – and by scheduling several early-voting days. Wingate students who are U.S. citizens, no matter where they hail from, can register to vote in North Carolina.

And Ellis says they most definitely should. He and Kaufman hope that their efforts lead students to develop a lifelong habit of voting.

“Part of civic engagement is what I would call ‘discipline,’” Ellis says. “Eating right, going to church, reading before class. Just making it a part of your life.”

It’s a way to effect change, Kaufman says, no matter what phase of adult life you’re in. For instance, state lawmakers often make policy that affects student loans.

“Students might not understand that the decisions made by these policy-makers do affect their lives,” Kaufman says. “If you want to have an influence on politics in any way, voting is the easiest way to have your voice heard.”

Like many people in the U.S., college students tend to become interested in voting only during presidential elections. In 2016, 54.7 percent of Wingate students voted in November. That figure dropped to 31.9 percent in 2018, a “midterm” election year. It then leapt to 66.9% in 2020 (compared with the national average of 66%).

Voting in smaller races might be a more substantial way to change your life for the better than voting for president, Kaufman says.

“For your state legislator, for your local city council, oftentimes there’s thousands of voters in that election,” she says. “You can really have an influence, vs. the presidential election, where there’s millions of votes.”

But getting students out every four years to pull a lever for the presidential candidate of their choice is a good first step. Ellis, who is also the director of W’Engage, Wingate’s community-service-focused experience for sophomores, has infused the program with a civic-engagement flavor.

“People need to be informed about the world around them in order to make changes and live in the sort of world that they want to live in,” Ellis says. “To live in a pluralistic, democratic society, part of our responsibility is, at some level, to be engaged in the political process, lest bad people take it over, or uninterested people, or people with the wrong intentions. Being mindful of that is significant.”

Nov. 2, 2021