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What's in a vote?

After weeks of emails, registration efforts and social media rants, early voting in North Carolina is finally upon us. However, as we all attempt to find a few extra minutes within our busy schedules to drop by the Brodhead Center to cast a ballot, we should take time to reflect on the state of civic participation—both locally and around the country. 

Anytime someone voices voices dissatisfaction with domestic policy or the current White House administration, they’re sure to be met with a chorus of sanctimonious voices insisting voting is the only path to change. While it certainly is one of the more obvious forms of political engagement, this knee-jerk reaction to suggest registration raises an important question: how can all American citizens effect change through the democratic process when thousands of American citizens are actively hindered from voting? And what does the privilege to vote mean for temporary Durhamites like ourselves?

Across the United States, voting rights are under fire as many citizens are finding out that they are unable to perform the most basic of rights. Indiana has purged nearly a half-million registered voters. In Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp–who is also running for governor–has put a hold on more than 53,000 newly registered mostly Black voters. A voter ID law in North Dakota that requires voters to have a current residential street address is targeting thousands of Native Americans who live on reservations without an address. Issues with Florida’s voter registration site two days before the deadline prevented residents from being able to register to vote. These examples shed light on the way in which voter suppression across many states acts to disenfranchise voters—especially along racial and class lines—and complicate an often over-simplified situation.

These conditions give even greater weight to members of the Duke community who are able to cast their vote. More than ever before, students are being bombarded with publicity posters lining Crown Commons, Facebook posts advertising the Party at the Polls and even emails from President Price. With the creation of an early voting station conveniently located in the Brodhead Center, the university isn’t shying away from actively pushing Duke students to cast their vote. Duke itself yields significant decision-making power within Durham politics. Take, for instance, the fact that Durham mayor Steve Schewel is an alumnus and current professor of Duke. The university’s financial power also allows it to shape day-to-day operations of Durham, like when it removed funding from the Bull City Connector. As Duke students, we come to Durham and reside here for four years, only to pick up and leave once we graduate. Given this, what are the ethics of our power to wielding significant influence within local Durham elections? What kind of political actors does the university encourage us to be?

When the majority of the Duke student body never step foot into Durham—save for a Saturday night trip to Shooters—how can we expect, then, that Duke students feel enough commitment to be given the responsibility to weigh in on local politics? While groups like POLIS have been leading the effort to publicize voter registration and to improve participation rate in the midterm election, there has not been the same emphasis given to educating Duke students about the candidates. If Duke is interested in creating students who are actually partners within the Durham community, then their messaging needs to place more emphasis on voter education instead of solely voter registration.

The most immediate thing we as temporary Durham residents can do is ensure that we are informed before we cast our ballots. But the longer-term take-home message is that, while voting is certainly a civic duty, our political and community engagement should not end with our vote. Joining local advocacy campaigns by getting involved with groups such as Durham CAN or Durham People’s Alliance is a powerful way to engage with the community politics beyond occasional trips to the polling station. There are robust opportunities for Duke students to get involved through direct service agencies too, including Habitat for Humanity and the Community Empowerment Fund.

Ultimately, yes, vote. Read up about local candidates and the constitutional amendments on the table—especially given that one is about reviving voter ID requirements. But, once you’ve gotten your sticker, commit to doing more than the bare minimum. We must do better to pursue alternative, meaningful ways of engaging with the community beyond using it as a political chess piece: we owe it to Durham for all it does for us.

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