Voter registration, election turnout is continuing emphasis of WCU campus campaign

Katie Balough (left) and Samantha Burch (right) reach out to a potential voter as part of the Campus Vote Project.

Katie Balough (left) and Samantha Burch (right) reach out to a potential voter as part of the Campus Vote Project.

Western Carolina University’s ongoing effort get out the vote for the November election continues to gain momentum, now with added strength as part of the national Campus Vote Project and the Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Vote Everywhere project.

WCU students involved in the effort hope to achieve the best percentage of registered student voters at the polls by any college or university in North Carolina. An official website, vote.wcu.edu, has been established, as well as an active social media presence to build awareness. The Jackson County Board of Elections will establish an early-voting station on campus so students, faculty, staff and area residents will be able to participate in early voting from Thursday, Oct. 27, through Saturday, Nov. 5.

“In a presidential election year, sometimes it is tough to see how one’s vote could matter,” said Joanna Woodson, a leader of WCU’s campus vote efforts and an Andrew Goodman Foundation Fellow. “But the president is not the only, nor arguably the most important, person for whom people will vote. The ballot continues all the way down from senators to the board of commissioners to the county sheriff, and these elections are very much impacted by singular votes.

“However, when it does come down to the larger elections I believe that no vote exists in a vacuum. No person votes alone. Each time a person places a vote for a cause about which they care deeply, or a person in whom they believe, they are among many others also raising their voices to say this is what we want for our nation. The vote is power, and to disengage completely from the process, even if the process is not perfect, is to declare you have no interest in wielding power over your own life.”

Andrew “Andy” Goodman was murdered along with James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner in 1964 during the Freedom Summer, registering black voters in Mississippi. Their deaths directly led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had an immediate effect of giving power to millions of African-Americans across the nation, but most acutely in the South. The foundation was created in tribute to his ultimate sacrifice for the causes of equality, freedom and the right for all Americans to vote.

“Young people hold the key to a peaceful, just and sustainable future,” said Sylvia Golbin Goodman, executive director of the Andrew Goodman Foundation. “Unfortunately, they are often underrepresented in the political process. That’s why the Andrew Goodman Foundation created the Vote Everywhere program. By partnering with colleges and universities across the U.S., we’re able to identify students like Joanna, who are interested in civic engagement and social justice, and support them with training and resources. By creating a national network of engaged student leaders, we’re making young voices and votes a powerful force in democracy.”

The Campus Vote Project is a campaign working with university students on a state-by-state basis to remove barriers to voting on college campuses, and advocate for changes that expand access to voter registration and the voting process on campuses nationwide.

As a 21-year-old college student, Katie Balough, a senior majoring in social work, is getting ready to exercise her right to vote for the first time. “My reason for involvement in (the Campus Vote Project) is because many of my peers are not prepared and are unaware of the voting process,” she said. “Younger generations should determine the fate our country, because we will be directly affected by it. By actively engaging myself, I hope to inspire my peers to partake too.

“The democratic process can be intimidating to maneuver. I hope to ultimately become a resource for those that are new or confused by registering and voting. We are nonpartisan and hope to register any and every student on campus willing to engage in our civic duty as American citizens.”

WCU students turned out for the March 15 North Carolina primary at a higher rate than the general voting population and all but one other college in the state. WCU students make up 25 percent of Jackson County voters.

“Registering students is an ongoing project that we’re constantly working on,” said Samantha Burch, a sophomore majoring in social work. “I think the work we’re doing here on campus is extremely important. Educating the youth about their rights and getting them civically engaged is helping us rebuild our democracy here in North Carolina,” she said. “It’s especially important for people my age to get engaged in our communities by voting, because we’re the future. If only a small percentage of our generation is engaged, then only a small percentage of our generation will vote and know the issues that are happening.

“But if we can increase that percentage of people who are educated and engaged, then we would be able to see real change in rebuilding our communities and in exercising our democratic rights,” Burch said.

The students participating in leading the campus voting efforts, in addition to Woodson, Balough and Burch, are Ashlynn Landreth and Emma Tate, both seniors majoring in political science.

“These are ambassadors for fostering political engagement in our student body,” said Lane Perry, director of the WCU Center for Service Learning. “They are responsible for getting the polling station at WCU this fall, building student involvement in the civic process and, hopefully, increasing educated voter turnout among the student body and in the community.”

To learn more about service learning involvement and activities, call 828-227-7184.