Study finds NC universities with highest student turnout for 2016 election

UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC-Asheville had the highest rate of student voter turnout for the 2016 general election among North Carolina colleges, according to a new study from Common Cause NC.

Both UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC-Asheville saw 69 percent turnout at the polls, followed closely by Western Carolina University at 67 percent. Among private schools with the best turnout were Greensboro College at 66 percent, Campbell University with 59 percent and Gardner-Webb University at 58 percent.

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

The study 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.”

Many of the universities with the highest turnout started planning their voting promotion strategies as early as the summer of 2016. These campuses prioritized establishing a plan early to begin implementation at the beginning of fall classes. By the start of the semester, the plans were initiated by deploying trained students to educate their peers about voting and registration processes.

“One of the most significant factors that boosted turnout among students was each university’s efforts lobbying for on-campus early voting sites,” Gonzalez said. “Many of the biggest schools in North Carolina fought for and gained a voting site.”

Gudger and Gonzalez recommend that all North Carolina colleges and universities implement a strategic voter education program for each election, which might include:

• voter registration drives
• shuttles to the polls
• marches to the polls
• debate watch parties

“Most students’ first voting opportunities occur while attending college,” Gudger said. “If institutions take initiative during the students’ first voting experiences, the students could be more educated and civically responsible voting citizens in the future.”

The Student Democracy Coalition at Western Carolina University (WCU) established goals and created a plan to meet them. At UNC-Asheville, student government took the lead in encouraging Bulldogs to vote. NC State University’s Wolfpack Pick Up shuttled students to the polling site on an obscure part of campus.

At WCU, the addition of an on-campus polling site helped student participation increase 14 percent in one election cycle. Dr. Lane Perry, director of the Center for Service Learning at WCU, 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 is 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.

The colleges and universities topping the list all had a voter turnout rate above 50 percent. They are:

1. (tied) UNC-Asheville and UNC-Chapel Hill (69 percent)
2. Western Carolina University (67 percent)
3. Greensboro College (66 percent)
4. UNC-Greensboro (65 percent)
5. Meredith College (64 percent)
6. NC State University (62 percent)
7. (tied) Campbell University, Queens University of Charlotte and Salem College (59 percent)
8. (tied) Gardner-Webb University and William Peace University (58 percent)
9. Warren Wilson College (56 percent)
10. (tied) NC A&T State University, UNC-Wilmington and Winston-Salem State University (55 percent)
11. Davidson College (54 percent)
12. (tied) East Carolina University, NC Central University and UNC-Charlotte (53 percent)

Common Cause NC is a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to encouraging citizen participation in democracy.

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