Duke, UNC students speak out against N.C. voting legislation

Aug. 11, 2013 @ 02:19 PM

Duke University and UNC students are pushing aside the college rivalry this fall to take a stand against the North Carolina voting legislation changes awaiting Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature.

Both student governments released a joint statement this month that said that controversial H.B. 589, which is supposed to combat voter fraud, would create obstacles for more than 20,000 North Carolina students who want to participate in the political process.

Students say the most negative portions of the bill would cut early voting by a week, put an end to same-day registration and restrict the use of college student IDs to vote.

“Our Student Governments have devoted much work and time in the past years to securing voting sites on campus, to registering over 1,000 voters, to encouraging students to participate and voice opinions, and to raising awareness for various legislative issues,” according to the joint statement. “We have tried to enthusiastically support our local and state leaders and appreciated their support of our contributions to the political process. We hope this relationship can continue to be fostered in the future.”

Derek Rhodes, Duke Student Government’s vice president for Durham and regional affairs and a public policy junior, is one of the names behind the joint effort. He said DSG has tracked the legislation for a year now, and one of the most stifling pieces of the bill to him is that teenagers wouldn’t be allowed to register to vote before they’re 18.

The bill would eliminate both same-day voter registration and voter preregistration for 16 and 17 year olds.

“I registered to vote when I was 16 and I was so excited about being part of the electoral process, and me and a couple of my friends at the time went to the Board of Elections and registered to vote,” Rhodes said. “I remember this feeling of inclusion and excitement. I want students to have that same feeling that I had.”

Duke University worked with the Durham County Board of Elections in 2008 to bring an early voting site to campus. Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, said early voting has taken place at Duke in 2008, 2010 and 2012, with high turnouts.

According to the Durham County Board of Elections, Duke’s early voting site during the November 2008 general election saw 9,361 voters. N.C. Central University’s site saw 14,353 people.

During the May 2012 primary, Duke had 4,075 students vote early, and NCCU had 1,406. For the November 2012 general election, the Duke site had 9,174 early voters and NCCU had 9,715.

Stefani Jones, president of Duke Student Government and a political science senior, said the legislation makes it harder for college students to prove their residency for voting because they live on campus and don’t have a regular North Carolina address.

Only 15 percent of Duke’s 6,500 undergraduates are North Carolina residents.  

 “Having lived here for almost four years now, I definitely want to be able to vote in North Carolina and I feel that I’m a resident,” Jones said.

She said cutting early voting also will impact students who use the extra time to balance voting with their busy class and extracurricular schedules.

If the bill is signed by the governor, Duke Student Government is planning to reach out to students at the beginning of the semester to explain the voting changes. “We want to do everything we can to educate students,” Jones said. “I think students are going to be surprised at just how difficult it will be.”

Shelby Hudspeth, the director of state and external affairs with UNC Student Government, said this is an issue that affects both public and private school students. She said her organization will rely on campus political organizations and educational programming to get the word out about the changes.

Hudspeth, a UNC political science and history senior, said 20 different campus groups will meet once a month during the school year, and the voting changes will be one of the first topics discussed during the fall semester.   

Ferrel Guillory, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor of the practice of journalism and political commentator on Southern voters, said since he arrived at UNC in 1997, there has been an “expanding sense of the potency of the vote.”

The UNC campus is filled with political debate, college Republican and Democrat groups, and political publications, he said.

Yet students can’t use their college IDs as voter identification. Guillory said it will take further grassroots organization to continue the H.B. 589 pushback. He mentioned that North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper also has issued a statement against the legislation and urges McCrory to veto it.

Guillory said he grew up in Louisiana during the civil rights era, and at 66, he’s interested in passing the torch of political activism.

“I worry about anything that seems to discourage young adults from participation in our democracy,” he said.

Gunther Peck, a Duke associate professor of history and public policy, was part of the Duke team that brought early voting to campus in 2008 and beyond.

Peck said the huge youth turnout for Obama in 2008 may have been a warning to Republican legislators that the college-aged demographic will help the Democrats win a majority.

He said Duke and UNC students have created a participatory voting culture on their campuses, and they will fight to keep it that way.

“It’s a great rivalry between Duke and UNC, I admire it. I welcome it,” Peck said. “But when it comes to things that really unite us as citizens, they’re standing up for what’s right.”