WCU students again show strong voter turnout, civic engagement

Western Carolina University had the second-highest rate of student voter turnout for the 2016 general election among North Carolina colleges, according to a new study from Common Cause.

WCU also was first in a voter engagement competition among Southern Conference universities.

Sarah Gudger and Manuel Gonzalez of Common Cause North Carolina conducted the study to discover which of the state’s nearly 50 colleges and universities had the highest turnout of student voters. To determine this, they pinpointed which precincts aligned with each institution’s voters and calculated the percentage of students voting in each precinct.

The study by the nonprofit, nonpartisan group also compiled some of the best practices these universities used to promote voter turnout among the student body. “The common denominator we saw among the best-performing public universities was establishing detailed voting promotion goals and setting specific strategies to achieve them,” Gudger said. “This was especially true for the state’s larger public universities.”

At WCU, the addition of an on-campus polling site helped student participation increase 14 percent, with students, faculty and staff, along with area residents, able to vote in a convenient location. Lane Perry, director of WCU’s Center for Service Learning, believes that bringing democracy to the students helps foster their sense of civic duty.

“You create an environment where voting becomes almost second nature, even if it’s the first time, when you remove barriers from deceptively simple processes and at the same time increase voter confidence through education and awareness efforts,” Perry said.

Common Cause reports that WCU had a student voter turnout of 67 percent, while UNC-Asheville and UNC-Chapel Hill tied for the top position with 69 percent.

The Southern Conference held a “SoCon Votes” voter engagement competition during the election cycle, the first to be organized in an NCAA Division I athletic conference, organizers said. Each of the conference’s 10 participating institutions formed a team among students, faculty and staff to compete in four rounds. A panel of voter engagement advisers ranked the teams on criteria like get-out-the-vote efforts, ballot access, voter knowledge and the resulting election turnout.

“The SoCon Votes program helped inspire and motivate civic engagement,” Perry said. “Institutions are attracted to friendly competitions within our conference, and this program led to more intentional efforts across our institutions to formalize, plan, implement and document effective practices to register, educate and engage voters. We really took the program seriously and the students had a ton of fun with it. In turn, it helped inspire our Student Democracy Coalition to new heights.”

For more information, call the WCU Center for Service Learning at 828-227-7184 or visit servicelearning.wcu.edu.