Durham is due for a change in leadership this year, with Mayor Bill Bell not running for reelection and three city council seats up for grabs.
As the early voting period approaches, students may wonder how to vote or question whether it’s even worth their time. Students living on campus are eligible to vote in municipal elections as long as they are U.S. citizens and have registered to vote at their campus addresses.
Sunshine Hillygus, professor of political science, encouraged students to take part in the election.
“Voting is number one, in terms that at the end of the day, that is the most important political activity in a democracy,” she said.
This year, Durham's three ward-based council districts are up for election. The candidates in those seats must reside within the geographic region they represent, but all voters elect them. The election is divided into an October primary to narrow the field and a November election to determine the final winners.
Derek Bowens, director of the Durham County Board of Elections, encouraged students to utilize the Board of Election’s website to confirm their eligibility to vote or to call the Board's office for more information.
Unlike the 2016 presidential election, there will not be a voting site on campus for the October primary or November general election. However, Bowens noted that there will be early, one-stop voting available at four sites within the city—North Carolina Central University, the Durham County Board of Elections, the North Regional Library and the South Regional Library.
The early voting period for the primary will begin Sept. 21 and end Oct. 7, with the election falling on Oct. 10. Early voting for the general municipal election—which takes place Nov. 7—will run from Oct. 19 to Nov. 4, according to the Board of Election’s website.
Students can register on-site during early voting and will only need their Duke student IDs to do so. The IDs can serve as students proof-of-residence because the University supplies the Board of Elections with lists of students’ information, Bowens explained. Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, confirmed that the University will provide the necessary information to enable this process for the upcoming election.
Gunther Peck, associate professor of history and public policy, explained in an email that students who hope to vote on the day of the election will have to go to their corresponding precincts. East Campus residents will be able to vote at George Watts Elementary School if they are registered to vote before election day, while West and Central Campus residents vote at the Patterson Recreation Center.
“Students need to update their registration information to make sure they vote at the correct precinct," Peck wrote. "In the last election, two-thirds of all provisional ballots, those cast at the wrong precinct, were thrown out by the Republican-led County Board of Elections statewide."
As for voter turnout, Bowens said he hopes the fact that the races are being contested will lead to higher voter turnout than in previous municipal elections. In the 2015 primary, less than eight percent of registered Durham voters cast ballots, and less than 11 percent voted in that year’s November election.
“The turnout wasn’t significantly high when you compare that against the [presidential] general election last year, when we were looking at close to 70 percent turnout,” he said. “So typically the trend is that there is a huge dip in voting for municipal years, but we think that since this is the first election since 1997 that we have a non-incumbent mayor running on the ballot, we think that will increase turnout.”
The dip in participation between national and local elections is not the only statistical disparity. Hillygus said there is a “really huge” gap between voter participation among young people and older people. One reason for this, especially among college students, may be difficulties in registering to vote.
“In the United States, because we have to register to vote, that registration barrier becomes far more of an obstacle for young people," she said. "Every time they move, they’re supposed to update their address, and that can get complicated for college students in particular making decisions about whether you register to vote back home."
She also noted that for municipal and state elections, there is not the same barrage of media attention that accompanies presidential elections. In addition, groups that work to mobilize young voters for national elections tend to be absent for local races.
“[Young people's] consumption of news is not coming from talking with other parents at a PTA meeting. It’s not coming from talking with your neighbors about the city services,” she said. “People’s connection to the local community is really focused on Duke, so their connection to politics is far more national for college students.”
Some organizations are planning events on campus or organizing trips to off-campus events leading up to the elections. Duke's POLIS center is hosting a forum for first-years to learn about voting in Durham at Gilbert-Addoms Down Under Sept. 20, and transportation is being offered to and from a mayoral candidates’ forum hosted by the Sanford School of Public Policy at City Hall Sept. 14.
Neither Duke Democrats or Duke College Republicans has endorsed candidates in the elections, but both are advocating for students to participate in the races.
Senior Colin Duffy, president of Duke College Republicans, wrote in an email that it is important for students to get involved in their local government because it “has the biggest direct impact on their day to day life.”
“We really want to encourage Duke students to vote,” said senior Annie Lo, a vice president of Duke Democrats. “Because it’s such a privilege that we all have to become a part of the Durham community for the four years we’re here, we want Duke students to feel as involved as possible, especially because they are definitely affected by the outcome of these races.”
Sam Turken contributed reporting.
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Bre is a senior political science major from South Carolina, and she is the current video editor, special projects editor and recruitment chair for The Chronicle. She is also an associate photography editor and an investigations editor. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief and local and national news department head.