Rocking the Vote

Nothing inspires campus activism like a national media scandal.

As Durham County prepares for elections in November, Students for an Ethical Durham is working to register students to vote in Durham County and ensure that they get to the polls by November 7th.

"The whole purpose of what we're trying to do is to get Duke students to voice concern," says junior Christiane Regelbrugge, who founded the group in late August with two friends.

The campaign is inspired in part by "procedural and ethical violations" conducted by local elected officials, Regelbrugge says.

"There is a history of unfair treatment and even targeting of Duke students," she adds. "We're not asking for preferential treatment-we're looking out for the good of all."

Although she declines to name specific candidates, Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong and his handling of the rape accusations against three members of the 2005-2006 men's lacrosse team loom large in the group's mission.

"I think everyone has realized how important it is to have their voice heard in the upcoming elections, with everything that happened with the lacrosse case last March," says junior Emily Wygod, another Students for an Ethical Durham founder.

The group's website also features nine links to sites ranging from newspapers to the North Carolina State Bar Code of Professional Conduct, grouped under "Links to Articles on Ethical Violations committed by District Attorney, Mike Nifong."

The student founders say their group's name is not intended as an indictment of the whole community. Nevertheless, some Durham residents see it as just that. Eugene Brown, an at-large member of Durham City Council, says the name alone makes him skeptical of the group's motivation, adding that it also smacks of elitism.

"Most drives for registration that I've been involved in-since the 1960s, when black voters were disenfranchised-well, this doesn't have the same ring to it," he says. "I'm just dubious of any group that would call itself that, at Duke or anywhere."

Brown's colleague Mike Woodard, City Council's Ward 3 representative, graduated from Duke in 1981 and now works in the University Financial Services Office. He says he is generally glad to see student involvement but harbors some of the same qualms about the group as Brown.

"Do they express any interest in affordable housing? Economic development? Revitalization?" he asks. "If students want to be engaged, they ought to be involved all four years."

Wygod says she hopes students will gain the impetus to get involved in other community issues. She adds that the lacrosse case has opened a portal for students to enter Durham politics.

"Motivation is a really hard thing to do," she says. "Getting students to vote is a real challenge, not just here but nationally, and it takes something of this magnitude to get students motivated."

Whatever the off-campus reaction may be, the drive has met with success.

As of September 29th, there were 671 voters registered with an East Campus residence and 827 voters with a mailbox on West Campus.

Michael Ashe, director of the Durham County Board of Elections, says out-of-date addresses probably inflate the figure by 10 to 15 percent, but the inflation is offset by students who live on Central Campus or off-campus.

"We've probably given, to Duke groups, 2,500 forms," Ashe says. "Is there this huge groundswell, do I have people standing around the block waiting to get in? No."

Student volunteers have tabled on the West Campus Plaza and other campus locations, registering between 700 and 750 students, including both undergraduates and graduates. They said they hope to reach the 1,500-voter mark by the close of registration October 13th.

Sophomore Bari Claster chose to switch her registration to Durham County, saying her motivation was simple.

"I feel strong enough about getting Nifong out of office to take the time to register here and re-register at home," she says. "If we can accelerate the process for the boys [on the lacrosse team] to get out of the trial by getting Nifong out of office, it's worth the five minutes to register here."

Student say they will follow the initial push to register voters with a drive to make sure registered students actually go to the polls.

"We aren't telling [students] who to vote for-we want them to make their own educated decisions and voice their opinions on Election Day," Regelbrugge says.

And that's fine with Brown.

"Welcome to democracy," he says. "They are certainly entitled to register to vote."


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