Virginia College Students Weigh in Before Election Day

College students across the state have been busy registering voters, hosting town halls and canvassing for candidates

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RICHMOND — All 140 seats of the Virginia legislature are up for election on Tuesday and college students across the state have been busy registering voters, hosting town halls and canvassing for candidates. 

“College students are more likely to vote in 2019 than any other Virginia midterm because of the aggressive voter registration efforts at college campuses around the state this fall,” Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, said in an email.

Many eyes are on the student vote this election. According to the United States Census Bureau, the largest percentage point increase in voter turnout for any age group in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections was among 18- to 29-year-olds, when voter turnout spiked from 20 percent in 2014 to 36 percent in 2018.

Students at four-year institutions in Virginia make up around 5% of Virginia’s voting age population, according to an analysis of data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. In certain key districts students make up a larger portion of the voting population. House District 12 covers part of the Virginia Tech campus and the entire Radford University campus. Radford students make up 19% of the district. 

“The impact of increased student voting also may shape races in districts without colleges and universities as some students choose to register to vote based on where they grew up, and others choose to register where they are going to school,” Farnsworth said.

Grant Fox, press secretary for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said Democratic campaigns have worked closely with the party’s groups in university districts.

“Often the best voter registration and canvassing efforts on college campuses are run by students, and Democratic campaigns have been working with student organizers to register and mobilize young voters effectively,” Fox said.

John Findlay, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, said Republicans always try for the student vote. 

“Numerous campaigns have had internship programs and contacts with College Republican chapters,” Findlay said. 

CNS reporters compiled information about student voter engagement and policy concerns from 14 Virginia college campuses with enrollment over 4,500 people. Political groups and campaign campus organizers were contacted.

Several themes echoed across campuses: concerns about climate change, varying views on gun control and a strong push to register as many students as possible. 

Based on a CNS analysis of competitive races, redistricting changes and recent voting trends on Virginia Public Access Project, nine of these college campuses fall into competitive race districts. Candidates in some of these districts also weigh in on how they have focused on gaining student support. 

Findlay said student turnout could “definitely” affect House Districts 85, 93, 91 and 12 and Senate Districts 6 and 7. He also said turnout could affect SD 10 and HD 28, “although most students live outside those districts.”