Erin Papakostas ‘23
As the 2020 primary elections near, many in the Davidson College community prepare to cast their ballots. Students and faculty narrow their voting preferences, choosing leaders they feel can best represent them locally and nationally. Voter turnout among Davidson students has increased in recent years, and the college vote can play a critical role in deciding local elections, which are sometimes decided by merely hundreds of votes.
Some Davidson students decided to vote in North Carolina rather than in their home states. Emma Siepmann ‘23 from outside Portland, Oregon is one of these students.
“I chose to change my registration because, as a Democrat, I felt as though my vote would be more influential here. Oregon is going to go Democratic either way in November, but North Carolina is much more of a swing state.”
Hank Leathers ‘23, from Tupelo, Mississippi, will also vote Democratic in North Carolina: “I didn’t want to deal with absentee voting in Mississippi, and I thought voting in North Carolina would maximize my vote.”
Other students, like Maeve Arthur ‘22, remained registered to vote in their home state: “I decided to stay registered in Maine because I feel like my vote matters more there. I like to vote on local issues because my home community is very small, and I care about it a lot.”
To track student registration and voting, Davidson College participated in the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), an initiative from the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education (IDHE) at Tufts University.
The study compiled student voting data from the 2018 midterm elections. According to the data, in the 2018 midterms, the student voting rate increased to 37%, a 23.7% increase from 2014. Additionally, the 2018 midterm elections saw an increase in voter registration among Davidson students, as well as a rise in registered students who voted in the 2018 general elections.
To some Davidson students, a candidate’s response to key issues impacts how they will vote this election cycle. Siepmann believes that climate change, reproductive rights, Medicare, and College for All are important issues to students. “These policy points will be deciding factors for how students will vote both in the primaries coming up and in the general in November,” Siepmann said.
Some Davidson students have already demonstrated a particular attraction to Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, Center for Political Engagement (CPE) Chair Joe DeMartin ‘21 explained. He noted, “As far as students’ interest in candidates go, on the day of the Iowa Caucus, the Center for Political Engagement and College Democrats ran a student straw poll in the 900 Room. We got 148 total votes and Senator Bernie Sanders had the most support with 46 votes.”
“Overall, I feel like students are very engaged in this year’s primary. We’ve had strong turnout at our events where we watch debates and election results. There are also two new groups that are offshoots of the College Democrats: Davidson for Pete, and Cats for Bernie—so there’s clear student energy behind those two candidates,” Demartin said.
“Davidson for Pete,” a group led by Sutter Phillips ‘21, is separate from Davidson Democrats and aims to bring success to Pete Buttigieg’s campaign. “I think it’s important to elect someone new to attack important issues such as soaring healthcare prices, rampant gun violence, and unfair immigration laws. I believe that Pete is the best equipped to look at our problems and find new, outside-the-box approaches to dealing with them…beyond the same old partisan fighting that we always see,” Phillips said.
Davidson students should pay attention to local politics as well, said Davidson Religious Studies Professor and Chair of the Precinct 206 Democrats Greg Snyder. He believes two important races to vote on in Mecklenburg County are County Commission and State Treasurer.
The treasurer “handle[s] all the pensions for the state. They also manage healthcare payments, but also would be in a position to inform policy decisions. The treasurer has some leeway and some authority when it comes down to policy discussions. So if for example, a way could be found to expand Medicaid, then that would be a huge thing for hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians,” Dr. Snyder said.
The types of local races Dr. Snyder described often come down to the narrowest of margins, in which case the student vote can make all the difference. In 2018, Republican candidate John Bradford lost to Democrat candidate Christy Clark for the North Carolina House of Representatives District 98 seat. District 98 encompasses north Mecklenburg County, including Davidson. In November 2020, the two will once again run against one another.
Rep. Christy Clark commented, “The issues that are most important to my constituents remain quality public education, the rising costs of healthcare, and traffic and transportation specifically around I-77 and the NCDOT project delays.”
Dr. Snyder stressed the relevance of Clark’s race to the Davidson community. “If the Democrats could win a majority in either the State House or the State Senate, they would have a lot more leverage when it came down to expanding health care, for example. They will also have more influence and leverage when it comes down to redrawing legislative districts for 2020 to 2030.”
In Rep. Clark’s last election, Dr. Snyder said, “Our precinct knocked on thousands of doors for her, and we raised a good chunk of money early on in the cycle. In the end, she ended up winning by 415 votes.”
Rep. Clark commented, “[The college vote] is particularly important for House District 98. This race will come down to hundreds of votes as it did in 2018. Democratic college students who vote in November will help maintain or even increase the gap between me and my opponent in my favor.”
“Why would [a student] coming here from Minnesota care about Christy Clark? Because it’s flat out a justice issue. If you’re in this political environment as a student, part of the liberal arts culture is to say look around, see what’s going on, analyze it, and contribute to it in a positive way,” Dr. Snyder stated.
Siepmann added, “I think that getting students informed on the issues and giving them an understanding of the power of their vote is hugely important as the election draws nearer, because students will be one of the most influential voting groups this time around.”