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Why don't Duke students vote in local elections?

Home for Jay Zussman is New York, though in his third year as an undergraduate at Duke, Durham is starting to feel more like home too. After getting back early Tuesday morning from fall break, Zussman frequented his usual haunts—Harris Teeter for groceries, then Mad Hatter Cafe to study. It was only three days later, on Friday, while scrolling through his Facebook feed that Zussman realized that the city had held municipal primary elections.

“I don’t think students had any idea of when the elections were,” he said. “Nobody who I know went to vote in the primaries. Not a single person.”

Voter turnout for Durham’s municipal elections are generally low, with the recent primary election turnout of 13 percent representing an uptick from the eight percent of registered residents who voted in the 2015 municipal primaries. The turnout for Precinct 5, the voting area that covers Duke’s West and Central Campuses, also increased, though still recorded the lowest turnout in the county at two percent, or 143 votes.

Of the city’s 56 voting precincts, Durham’s Precinct 5 has historically recorded the lowest voter turnout in municipal elections. Voter turnout in Precinct 5 averaged below one percent in recent municipal general and primary elections, illustrating a town and gown divide and raising questions about undergraduates’ engagement with city issues.

Natalie Murdock, Durham Democratic Party vice-chair for Precinct 5, agreed that the precinct’s voter turnout sagged in comparison to the city’s turnout. 

“I really think it’s because there is a university in this precinct,” she said.

Are Duke students Durham residents?

For Zussman, the idea of voting in Durham is fundamentally different to voting as a resident of New York. Part of this is because Zussman believes that he has a stake in New York’s political issues and feels an obligation to vote. At the same time, he is grappling with the concept of being both a Duke student and a Durham resident.

“I don’t know if Duke students routinely think about the fact that they live in Durham,” he said. “When I’m on-campus, I definitely don’t. When I’m off-campus, I also don’t. Part of that is down to me living in [Berkshire Ninth Street apartment complex] which is the epitome of the gentrification of Durham. I don’t even feel like I live in Durham there.”

Steve Schewel, a city councilman and Duke professor currently running to be Durham’s mayor, left Lynchburg, Va., to attend Duke as an undergraduate. Schewel said he agreed that most Duke students do not feel as though Durham is their home.

“I think student turnout is low because there are relatively few Duke students who are invested in Durham,” he said. “Some certainly are, but most don’t regard Durham as their home in the same way they regard where they came from as their home. They don’t see it as particularly salient in their life.”

In comparison to the campus-wide drive to vote in the 2016 presidential elections, student groups have been notably less vocal in pushing students to vote in municipal elections. The city’s turnout rate for the presidential election was 68 percent, with 583 votes cast in Precinct 5. For senior Liz Brown, vice president for Durham and regional affairs for Duke Student Government, pushing students to vote in city elections presented a different ethical dilemma.

“It’s not that Duke students shouldn’t vote in Durham elections,” Brown said. “But...we shouldn’t just be making students vote because they are Duke students. I don’t think that the undergraduate student voice is the voice that needs to be heard in the city’s election.”

Many students are not well-informed on the election’s defining issues of gentrification, affordable housing, policing and poverty, which marginally impact students’ lives, she said. Though some students may consider themselves to be Durham citizens, Brown said there are others who consider themselves to be first and foremost Blue Devils.

She added that using Duke’s resources to push students to vote in an election that has a generally low citywide turnout would lead to students having a “weirdly loud voice.”

Unique challenges for Precinct 5

Even as student engagement is a factor in voter turnout, the precinct’s turnout rate may in fact be skewed lower due to a disproportionately high number of registered voters. According to Derek Bowens, the elections director at the Durham County Board of Elections, 3,143 of the precinct’s 8,074 registered voters have an inactive status.

Bowens said most of the inactive voters are probably students who registered in Durham and then moved away after graduation. They cannot be removed from the registration rolls until they have been inactive for two federal election cycles, Bowens explained.

Without the inactive voters, the voter turnout would be three percent, still the lowest in the county. Another reason for this may be the diverse mix of demographics in the precinct, which makes it difficult for political groups to develop collective organizing strategies. 

In addition to Duke's campus, the precinct comprises the Damar Court and Morreene Road public housing complexes and the Crest Street neighborhood, a predominantly African-American community with labor ties to the University.

Murdock said selecting locations for election events has also been challenging, with residents unable to come to campus and students unwilling to go off campus.

“If you do something that’s convenient for Duke students, it’s more than likely not convenient for Morreene Road, Damar Court or Crest Street residents,” she said.

This asymmetry extends to the precinct’s poll site—located at W.I. Patterson Recreation Center—in the heart of the Crest Street community north of Duke Hospital.

Murdock, however, said she had heard that the location “may not be the most accessible” for residents of public housing units.

Even as challenges remain, this year’s primary voter turnout represents a steady increase from the 0.5 percent and 0.8 percent turnout of the previous two municipal primaries. Brown and Schewel said they are optimistic that, among students, the narrative of the University’s relationship with Durham is changing. 

For Schewel, the question of voting as a Duke student is rather simple.

“If you think to yourself that you’re not really a Durham resident and you don’t really care about Durham, then you shouldn’t vote,” he said. “But if you’re committed to Durham and you think of yourself during your time here as a Durham resident in your four years here, then voting should be important.”


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