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Q&A with Heather Smith

Two days before the North Carolina presidential primary and vote on the Amendment One same-sex marriage referendum May 8, an early voting site is coming to campus. President of Rock the Vote Heather Smith, Trinity ’98, believes this is a step in the right direction toward encouraging youth to vote. Smith, who has directed the nonprofit voter registration organization for about six years, visited campus Tuesday to speak with students about political involvement. The Chronicle’s Lauren Carroll sat down with Smith to talk about the importance of the youth vote at Duke and across the nation.

The Chronicle: How did you go from Duke to Rock the Vote?

Heather Smith: I’ve always been interested in how to effect public policy—I was a public policy major here at Duke—and how to organize and make positive social change. Right out of Duke I was doing a lot of work on various issue campaigns, in particular environmental campaigns, and it quickly became clear that in order to really win real victories on the issues we cared about, we needed the people who cared about them involved in the political process—[to] make sure we had some real political power for our community. So I just started working around elections and organizing young people and Rock the Vote was the biggest and most well-known organization doing it, and it’s also incredibly effective…. I love my work.

TC: What was the political atmosphere like at Duke when you were a student?

HS: There was a lot of work around various issues, like labor issues [and] sweatshops. There was a big student movement around that…. I registered to vote for the first time at Duke. I remember there was a table set on the walkway and people were registering voters, and I thought ‘Oh, I can vote now—I should do that’.... I visit campuses all the time, and when there’s not that kind of activity going on where students are involved with what’s going on in the campus and in their community or running registration drives, it feels very different. And I think in many ways, Duke can be a model of what could happen at schools. Maybe it’s just from the outside and from that perspective, today it feels like Duke is so far ahead in terms of what students are doing and the impact they are making.

TC: Do you find that college students are more excited about voting than other youth voters?

HS: In general, I think that college students are more engaged in the political process. Perhaps it’s a product of the education or the where they come from, but they have an understanding of the power that they have. You have to be part of that process—you have to play the game, and you have to be a voter. In non-college communities, it’s way less prevalent. Oftentimes, there’s just not the kind of education to help people understand, such as civic education programs being cut from our high schools. If your parents aren’t voting or you aren’t getting that education you would be in a college setting, you won’t know how the process works and why it matters.

TC: What issues do you think are most important to youth voters in this election cycle?

HS: It’s a little bit different in every community, but in general right now, just like for all Americans issues with jobs and the economy are front of mind. Whether that’s living with incredible student debt when you graduate, being able to find a job after finishing your education, maybe you don’t go on to college and you’re trying to find a job that pays high enough wages to take care of your family.

TC: It seemed that in 2008, young voters were particularly excited about the election. Are you seeing the same enthusiasm this year?

HS: It’s a very different year. Four years later and those who are just able to vote for the first time—I’m seeing a ton of excitement from them because now is their time, and they get to cast a ballot for the first time.... And for a lot of young voters, it’s more serious. So it’s not the excitement of four years ago, but there’s a reality to this. Many young people are worse off than they were four years ago. While unemployment rates might be going up for young people, they’re still the highest they’ve ever been since labor statistics have been tracked. Yes, it’s not all butterflies and excitement, but the consequences of who is elected and the decisions they make feel very real. The other thing I’m hearing is ‘will my voice matter or will it continue to be trumped by corporate interests and special interests?’ There is a lot of work to be done to help people understand that the system is not perfect but we solve it by opting in, not by giving up our power to those we think are corrupting it.

TC: What do you think about Duke’s on-campus voting site?

HS: It’s a great way to bring voting and the process to campus directly. There’s some states that allow it and some campuses that do, and everywhere I’ve seen it, it’s been effective. If we’re 18, and we’re in this country, we should be able to cast a vote, and we should be encouraging that and making it easier and accessible for people who are students, who are working, who have busy lives. In addition, it’s a nice way to integrate civic participation into our daily lives. The ability to see people in line, cast a ballot in person, discuss with your peers and colleagues about what’s at stake and what’s on the ballot and have those conversations about it—that’s what democracy’s about.

TC: Have you seen these sites on many other campuses?

HS: A handful. The one I remember the most, it was in Iowa, right outside of Des Moines. It was an early voting site, and there were lines and lines and lines, and it turned into essentially a festival. They tried to close the polls down because the hours were done but there were so many people in line and the students were protesting, and we called the media, and they kept the polling booth open so everyone got the chance to use it. It was actually really fun, and I think a great model. But I think [Duke students] are really pioneers in how we make voting more a part of campus culture. [In] Some states, it gets really logistical. So trying to move a voting site to campus, it gets declined.... So [Duke] will be a great model of why this works.

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