William Parada won’t be a student at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg when Virginians help pick the next president of the United States.
But he is leading a push that, if successful, might let his younger peers vote in that 2020 election right on campus, between classes or study sessions. Christopher Newport University student Matthew Godsoe is hoping for the same thing, but at his own school in Newport News.
Godsoe and Parada are the presidents of their respective student chapters of Virginia21, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that aims to get more students and young professionals to the polls and involved with policymaking decisions.
This past spring, both young men — seniors — started mobilizing their chapters to make voting more accessible for students who might not have time to go off campus on an election day. They’re both devising plans to build student support and present formal plans to their school administrations, hopefully to bring a precinct to their campuses in the next two years.
It’s a push that is gaining some traction in Virginia. Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and James Madison University in Harrisonburg pushed for precincts on their own campuses in the past decade. JMU students worked several years to bring a polling precinct to their campus, according to Gerica Goodman, policy director for Virginia21, which supported that fight.
“I think that in the last few years there has been a pretty powerful ramping up of student interest in elections,” said Stephen Farnsworth, political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. “In addition to the larger schools that have tried to establish precincts, a number of students around Virginia have been holding voter registration drives and trying to draw attention to elections — rides to the polls and other actions.”
JMU students floated the idea separately to Parada and Godsoe this spring. Both said they were sold.
CNU students get shuttled a mile away from campus to Newport News’ Wellesly precinct, which is in a retirement home. That could clash with class schedules, study sessions or other obligations students face, Godsoe said.
“I know it sounds like we’re a bunch of spoiled rich kids,” Godsoe said. “Ultimately, it can be difficult for a student who has a full schedule as the semester is wrapping up to be able to take 45 minutes or an hour out of the day, because that ultimately means they have to take something else out of their day.”
Godsoe said their top choices are the Ferguson Center for the Arts, outside one of the theaters, or the Freeman Center, which has health and workout facilities for students, faculty and staff. Freeman also houses the 400-seat Gaines Theatre and meeting rooms for student activities.
At William and Mary, most students vote at the Matoaka precinct at the Williamsburg United Methodist Church, which is just beyond campus lines. Parada acknowledged that’s not far, but said it’s tough for students to make it out there when they’re dealing with a full schedule.
His chapter’s No. 1 choice for a precinct would be the Sadler Center, which has dining areas, postal services and a computer lab in the middle of campus.
“The people we’re trying to look out for the most are freshmen, because it’s a new environment,” Parada said. “They have little contact with the surrounding community. When I was a freshman, I barely ventured off of campus except for the occasional movie or haircut, so having (a precinct) on campus in a well-known centrally located place would be most ideal for, you know, trying to stay within people’s comfort zones and their realm of knowledge.”
College students will often vote absentee in their hometowns, Farnsworth said. Godsoe votes absentee in his home city of Lynchburg. He admits that he didn’t want to fill out the paperwork to switch.
When people ask why they shouldn’t just vote absentee, he tells them this: “I understand, but this is really important because the community that you’re a part of really does have a desire for you to get involved to vote. They’re different elections, a whole set of government officials here.”
In Virginia, annual elections probably have a hand in piquing more student interest, especially recently, he said. There was national interest in the 2017 gubernatorial race after 15 Democrats picked up seats in the House of Delegates and a Newport News seat was decided by a random drawing after it ended in a tie.
An on-campus precinct could help more students take interest in their own communities, even though some will stick with absentee voting, Farnsworth said.
“We know from all kinds of studies that the easier it is for people to vote, the more likely they are to do so,” Farnsworth said. “And so there’s no doubt about it — you would increase student participation if there was an on-campus voting location. That would be true for any school. That would be true even if the neighborhood voting center is a few blocks away.”
If Parada’s and Godsoe’s college administrations approve their eventual proposals, the individual cities come next. The local electoral board has to approve the plan and recommend a precinct change to the local city council, which gets the final say, according to Newport News Registrar Vicki Lewis and Williamsburg Assistant Registrar Tina Reitzel.
According to state law, a new precinct in a city can be created only if it has no fewer than 500 registered voters and no more than 5,000. Once councils approve the changes, affected voters are notified of their new polling place, Lewis said. No changes can be made within 60 days before a general election.
The cost to open a new precinct in Newport News would run about $675 — salaries for a precinct chief, assistant chief and three other officers, depending on the size of the precinct, according to Lewis. Newport News has spare voting machines they could use, she said.
But the cost would probably be steeper in Williamsburg. Since the city is a small one — nine square miles with about 10,000 registered voters — they do not have spare equipment. Ballot-counting machines cost “upwards of $5,000 per machine,” Reitzel said, and that doesn’t include the cost of officers and other supplies.
The conversations are further along at CNU than at William and Mary. Godsoe said he had a meeting with Travis Smith, CNU’s director for student activities, in late April when he presented a plan and answered questions. Smith seemed “very supportive” of the idea and encouraged them to “keep pushing,” said Godsoe.
The proposal would have to go before Kevin Hughes, CNU’s vice president of student affairs, and Godsoe said they’re trying to figure out a plan for some kind of student survey. They plan to submit a concrete proposal to the administration by the end of August.
And ahead of November’s midterm elections for the U.S. Senate and Congress, Godsoe said his group wants to register students to show the administration how much interest exists.
CNU spokesman Tom Kramer said the school encourages Godsoe’s group to pursue the matter.
“We encourage our students to be engaged in the local community here and all of their communities,” Kramer said. “That’s a key part of leading a life of significance at CNU — is to be an engaged leader in your community.”
Parada said his chapter is going to build a grassroots movement. As they recruit members for their Virginia21 chapter in the fall, they’ll survey people on the precinct idea. Once they gauge interest, he said they will approach William and Mary administration and lobby support from the student government and other student organizations from across the political spectrum.
The 2020 election is the goal for both Parada and Godsoe, they said. But, for Parada, in an ideal world it would be a more local race — the 2019 Virginia General Assembly election.
“2019 would be our Utopian goal,” Parada said.