BLACKSBURG, Va. – Groups across the state of Virginia work all year long to get students registered to vote in high school and college — the idea being, if these students start young, they’ll vote their entire lives.
“College students have been at the forefront of political activism since forever,” said Maya Mahdi, director of Hokies Vote Caucus, who is continuing that tradition on the Virginia Tech campus. “Both my parents are Syrian immigrants. I was always raised around this culture of how awesome democracy is, and how it really is a beautiful thing to have your voice valued, and to speak up and to empower the people around you.”
Virginia Tech started a civic engagement program in 2018 that has seen plenty of growth over the years.
The school has worked hard to get from a 48% student-voter rate in 2012 to a 73% student-voting rate in 2020.
The national college student-voting rate was 66% in 2020.
These statistics come from the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education: National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement. The student-voter registration rate is even higher at 90%.
“I think Hokies do like to vote, and they do value it, and they do want to sort of create this social change and accountability for their students and their peers, to not just say, ‘I want this change to happen’, but to actually go out there and take the first step in making that change, which is voting,” Mahdi said.
Virginia Tech also started a series called Deliberative Dialogues, where students can talk about issues in the community.
“I think we’re seeing a lot more divisiveness in society broadly,” said Jes Davis, VT Assistant Director for Leadership and Civic Engagement. “There’s a lot of mis- and dis-information that is out there. This allows students to come together, have a conversation about a topic and really kind of walk away and think through, ‘What does this mean for my community?’ Because we also know that solutions look different for every community, right? It’s not going to be the same. So, how can we talk through what those look like for our community here?”
When it comes to educating students about voting rights and what they can do, especially as newer voters, are there limitations? Is there something that stops the conversation?
“One of the problems that students face is transportation to the polling places,” said Eisha KC, a VT sophomore who is also with Hokies Vote Caucus. “So, what we did was have a day where we transported students from Virginia Tech to the polling place.”
Added Davis, “I think probably the biggest limitation to students voting is really that time piece. Right? And I don’t think it’s different for any other person, too.”
Davis said they try to get ahead of all the roadblocks and push voter turnout with information, and by passing out stamps on campus for absentee voting, and even voting on campus, which wasn’t always possible.
“Registrars in Virginia in this area made it very hard for college students to vote,” said Beth Obenshain, with the League of Women Voters in Montgomery County. “They only wanted them to vote where their parents lived. And so, the biggest change we’ve seen is students can now choose -- do we want to vote on campus? We want to vote here, or perhaps we know the candidates and the issues a little better in our hometown.”
They have support from everyone on campus, including Virginia Tech President Tim Sands.
“I think asking people to register to vote is a pretty easy thing to rally around,” Davis said. “I think it’s one of those rights that we have as a citizen that we want to exercise, but I think the important piece, too, is that we really have support from (the) top down.”
Said Mahdi, “I feel like voting is the first step. Then you can push people to really be activists and be the person to take that first step to make the change they want to see.”