A diverse cohort of student organizations and community members are exploring alternative ways to register voters during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are in a coronavirus time so everyone is really kind of coming together to do what we can,” said Jes Davis, assistant director for leadership and service learning at Virginia Tech. “I think us being able to do our part in a little bit of this goes a long way.”
The rapid spread of the coronavirus has raised public health concerns with in-person registration. With safety as their guiding principle, Virginia Tech offices, student groups and non-partisan organizations are collaborating with one another to connect voters to the polls.
The Office of Inclusion and Diversity, Student Engagement and Campus Life as well as Virginia Tech Engage are some members of the open coalition. Additionally, directors of the on-campus cultural center and members of the LGBTQ Faculty and Staff Caucus have taken part in discussing how to represent their communities in the upcoming election. Non-partisan groups have also joined such as the League of Women Voters and the Voter Engagement and Education Project. The open coalition is focused on providing resources for student voters to successfully cast their ballots. Any on-campus and local organizations are welcome to join their mission.
As Blacksburg anticipates the return of students for the fall semester, reminders and events will be a part of the campaign to register students and many first-time voters.
GobblerConnect plans to provide a website link to register to vote with the help of Turbovote. The League of Women Voters is displaying signs throughout Blacksburg sharing voter information and a QR Code to register virtually. Virginian voters may also register to online at https://www.elections.virginia.gov/.
In celebration of National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 22, the Blacksburg community will commemorate the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment. “(VT Engage) will be partnering with the Women’s Center and League of Women Voters to talk about women’s suffrage. In particular, women of color who are consistently left out of the narrative of the Women’s Suffrage Movement,” Davis said.
Additionally, students will have the opportunity to experience National Voter Education Week Oct. 5-9. Voter preparedness, ballot literacy and day-of-election planning are some topics the event will highlight.
“[We want] to make sure that people know what some of their options are for with both mail-in and early voting. But, also to keep in our minds too –– or whatever reason we have to send students back home — [we want] to make sure folks have whatever they need to make sure they can vote,” Davis said about National Voter Education Week. In the case students will be dismissed from Virginia Tech’s campus, students can change their address for mail-in voting anytime prior to Oct. 13.
Many officials encourage individuals to vote absentee by mail or early in-person to mitigate the coronavirus outbreak. Montgomery County election officials have proposed two satellite locations for early in-person voting which will be decided later this August.
The Virginia deadline to register to vote or update an existing registration is Tuesday, Oct. 13. A request for an absentee ballot to be mailed to Virginia voters must be completed Friday, Oct. 23.
University faculty and community members emphasize the importance for students to participate in the November election especially for Virginian voters. A state constitutional amendment will be on November’s ballot allowing voters to decide on the passage of the Virginia Redistricting Advisory Commission. The Commission would establish a non-political, bi-partisan redistricting committee as a way to end state gerrymandering. The legislation would create a group of eight legislators and eight citizens selected by retired judges for fair representation when restructuring voting districts. The amendment is intended to follow the “natural lines of geography” according to Beth Obenshain, president of the League of Women Voters in Montgomery County.
“As coronavirus persists and we have this economic downturn, it is going to be really pivotal for us to make sure that the people we want to represent us are in these positions because they hold the purse strings,” Davis said.
According to the Tufts’ National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), Virginia Tech had a 35.5% voting rate in 2018 — below the 39.1% average for all U.S. colleges. About half of Virginia Tech students registered to vote and participated in the 2018 elections. The dissonance between high registration rates and low turnout forces Virginia Tech faculty and students to focus on if and how the ballots are casted.
Obenshain stresses that college students must “make themselves heard” by voting. Even international students and individual’s ineligible to vote can participate in the upcoming election through the “power of persuasion” by encouraging others to go vote.
“While international students or undocumented students aren’t necessarily able to vote, a lot of our policy still affects them,” Davis said. A prominent example was the Trump Administration’s order to ban international students from staying in the U.S. if taking all online-only courses which was later overturned.
This year’s election is set for Nov. 3. “This year, while it is a presidential election, I think there are a lot of different stakes that are pulling on this particular election,” Davis said in reference to the upcoming Senate elections this fall. Senate seats, which are held for 6 years, will be on the ballot in addition to the presidential ticket and — Virginia specifically — a constitutional amendment.