Student enthusiasm buoys voter registration numbers

  • The candidatesWilliam and Mary students have been eagerly preparing for this year's presidential election. Election enthusiasm even carried over into some students' choices in Halloween costumes. Michael Douglass ('11) dressed up as Republican candidate John McCain, and Kevin Dua ('09) dressed up as Democratic candidate Barack Obama. Douglass will volunteer at the polls on Election Day.

    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

    The candidates
  • Getting out the voteStudents organized to get out the vote in 2008 in many ways, including by providing free shuttle service to and from polling locations.

    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

    Getting out the vote
  • Getting out the voteStudents join the line outside of the Williamsburg Community Building to vote on Election Day.

    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

    Getting out the vote
College-aged students have historically been unreliable voters, but this Election Day might change that stereotype in Virginia, thanks in part to the hard work of students at the College of William and Mary who have strived to get their classmates registered and excited about voting.

Buoyed by that local enthusiasm -- and registration of William and Mary students --  Williamsburg has the highest percentage of new registered voters in Virginia this year, according to recent report by the State Board of Elections. According to Student Assembly (SA) officials, students make up about 25 percent of registered voters in the colonial capital, beating out such sprawling cities as Arlington, Richmond and Charlottesville.

Over the past two years, between 2,170 and 2,398 undergraduate and graduate students have registered to vote in Williamsburg, according to SA officials. This year, the SA continued their push for voter registration the moment some of its members arrived back at school. Members of SA Public Affairs department and the Senate Public Affairs committee staffed tables during freshman orientation and managed to gain more than  600 new voters in that short period of time alone. From there, they set up tables in Swem Library and registered students at both their organization events and events co-sponsored by the SA. 

Matt Beato ('09) created an online program to enable students to convert their dorm addresses into their physical address, and then convert that into a PDF to turn into the registrar's office.

"I have made voter registration one of the hallmarks of both my tenures because I think that the goal of student government should be to advocate for and empower students," said Valerie Hopkins ('09), SA president. "What better way to advocate for students than to make voter registration as accessible as possible so that all students can raise their own voices? Ultimately, the SA can only go so far, and students need to claim their stake in our democracy." 

Most members of the SA and College community, including Secretary of Public Affairs David Witkowsky ('11), emphasize that it's passion driving this project rather than a certain political belief.

"To me, registering to vote and voting are really important," he said.  "I just turned 20 this past week and yet this will be my fifth time voting in an election or primary."

Witkowsky estimates that he and certain members of his department have "easily" spent between 20 and 25 hours a week on the voter registration project. 

Not all of the SA's focus on the election has been on registering students to vote.  On Nov. 4, they will partner with the University Center Activities Board (UCAB) to put on "demROCKracy." The event will run from 1-7 p.m. on the Sadler Center Terrace and feature live music, nonpartisan speakers and free food. 

The event was the brain child of David Johnson ('09), but he credits several members of the UCAB Executive Board with helping him turn his vision into a reality.

"I told them numerous times when I made my pitch that I have absolutely no experience with planning concerts and whatnot, so they gave me feedback that helped shape how I saw this coming together," he explained. "Then the committee chairs… really came through with their contacts, experience and advice—the concert is as much their creation as it is mine." 

Johnson, the SA's undersecretary of public affairs for Williamsburg, was also responsible for coordinating the SA's shuttle service between the College and the voting locations. They currently have four vans, including two taxi-service vans.  Students have the option of being picked up on two locations on campus: the Sadler Center Terrace or the Yates Dormitory parking lot.  If neither of those options are convenient, drivers will be offering a point-to-point system for students and city residents.  They hope to serve all of Williamsburg, and encourage anyone from either precinct to use the service. 

"I'm probably the most proud of how many people and groups I've been able to work with to provide these programs," Johnson said. "I think this is a prime example of the William and Mary community coming together to work on a common goal, and I’m just grateful to have been a part of it."

More than anything, Hopkins hopes that students will take advantage of these opportunities to go off campus and vote and realize just how important their vote could be. The political experts say Virginia is a battleground state this year in the presidential election between Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama. With the race tightening in the closing hours, students say each vote will make a difference.

"I would bet that the margin between the two presidential candidates, and the senatorial and congressional candidates, will be smaller than the number of students that the SA registered to vote," Hopkins said. "In a state where the margin of victory keeps getting smaller and smaller -- the 2005 Attorney General race was decided by 323 votes, only one hundredth of one percent, and the 2006 Senate race in Virginia was decided by less than one half of one percent -- Williamsburg can have an impact on the election."