Richmond’s student voting population has the potential to sway the partisan pendulum during the gubernatorial election on Nov. 7. There’s just one caveat: They need to show up.
Roughly 2 million qualified Virginia voters are millennials this election, as Democratic candidate Ralph Northam faces Republican Ed Gillespie in the contest for governor. That’s a big number, considering that during the last four gubernatorial elections, only about 2 million people across the state cast a ballot, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.
According to Virginia21, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to increasing millennial engagement with political issues, the vote differential between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the 2013 gubernatorial election was only 56,435 votes. Virginia's college enrollment is more than 530,000, according to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
“Currently, 30 percent of the eligible voting population in Virginia are millennials, and that alone could sway a victory for someone,” says Laura Bryant, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Virginia21 student leadership chairwoman. “Mark Herring, in 2013 I believe, only won by a few hundred votes, which is about the size of an average class at VCU alone. Imagine if an entire campus turned out.”
According to Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University in Massachusetts, an encouraging campus climate is “critical” to student political engagement.
“Unless students are involved 365 days of the year, these little races or midterm elections — students aren’t interested in them as much,” Thomas says. “One of the things we’re pushing is for campuses to pay attention to this stuff all of the time, not just episodically and only at presidential elections.”
The Richmond region could be of particular importance to a victory for either gubernatorial candidate. In the 2016 presidential election, Virginia’s polling places closed at 7 p.m., but the vote was too close to call until nearly four hours later. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton eventually cinched Virginia’s 13 electoral votes, but by less than a 5-percent margin over now-President Donald Trump.
Clinton’s win in the commonwealth came from small spots of blue amidst a sea of red across the state map. With the exception of Northern Virginia, the Richmond metro area and portions of the Hampton Roads region, the state voted almost exclusively Trump. In Richmond, however, Clinton gained 78.43 percent of the citywide vote — and in the race for governor, the winner is decided by popular vote, not the electoral college.
Notably, Richmond has not one, but three universities – VCU, University of Richmond and Virginia Union University — and school officials have made strides to encourage students to register, and vote, in the off-year election, too.
In the 2016 presidential election, voting analyses indicated the majority of Trump’s support, and subsequent electoral college victory, stemmed from majority-white precincts without a high percentage of college-educated voters.
“There’s a difference between someone who says, ‘I voted,’ and somebody who says, ‘I’m a voter,’ ” Thomas says. “One is more about their identity and the other is just an act. It’s when students see themselves as having an identity as a voter, or somebody who cares about a political issue — that’s the pivotal moment.”
In the Virginia gubernatorial election, Northam, the current lieutenant governor, has largely relied on support from national and state-level Democratic leadership, with Clinton, former Vice President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama hitting the campaign trail on his behalf.
Northam is leading Gillespie by 7 points, according to a recent poll by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University — but numbers aren’t always an accurate indicator of what election results will be, as evidenced by the 2016 race upsetting most polling data.
“It's going to be a close race in November, and we're going to need students on college campuses across Virginia to mobilize, to volunteer, to make calls, and to get people out to the polls,” Northam says in an emailed statement. “Students have a chance to make sure that their future, and the future of Virginia, is one of progress, inclusion, economic security, health, and equal rights for all Virginians.”
Gillespie, a mainstream candidate who served as Republican National Committee chairman and was White House counsel for George W. Bush, narrowly defeated the firebrand, former Trump campaign manager Corey Stewart in the gubernatorial primary — squeaking out a win by less than a 2 percent differential of about 4,500 votes.
In early October, Trump tweeted his support of Gillespie, and Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to campaign on Gillespie’s behalf Oct. 14 in Southwest Virginia. Virginia’s election will be scrutinized across the country by political analysts, as it is one of two gubernatorial elections this year, and some experts say the outcomes could function as an early referendum on Trump’s presidency.
Campaign spokesman Dave Abrams says via email that Gillespie was part of the first generation in his family to attend college, and paid his way through by parking cars and tending bar, “so he knows how important a college education is.”
“Virginia is home to world-class colleges and universities, and Ed enjoys talking with, and hearing from, the students who attend them,” Abrams says. “He knows how critical it is that we make it easier for graduates to find a good paying job right here in Virginia after they graduate.”
Thomas, the director at Tufts University, recently led the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education’s “National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement” (NSLVE) — a four-year analysis of student voting behaviors at colleges and universities across the country from 2012 to 2016. UR and VCU both participated in the study, which involved about 10 million students (roughly half of all U.S. college students) at more than 1,000 institutions across all 50 states.
Thomas says she thinks a candidate’s appeal, or lack thereof, is an important factor in student voting turnout — but timing is, too.
“My sense was many more campuses were politically active during the  election than maybe they’d been in 2012,” Thomas says. “I definitely think candidates are motivating, and I think what we saw from our data that registration rates were fairly static, but voting rates did change, which tells you basically something was going on in the month of October that drew students to the polls.”
Chuck Klink, vice president for the Division of Student Affairs at VCU, and Student Government President Destinee Moragne co-authored an email on Oct. 2 congratulating students on VCU’s individualized NSLVE institution report.
“For the 2016 election, the VCU student voting rate was 61.5 percent, surpassing the national average for all participating institutions of 50.4 percent,” the email stated. “The 2016 voting rate was also an increase of 4.7 percent from 2012.”
Klink’s email also noted two events leading up to Election Day in the Student Commons to register students and encourage them to make a pledge to vote. Dean of Student Affairs Reuban Rodriguez says VCU will be sending out another email to the campus community on Election Day highlighting that, “although it is not a day off, that there should be some latitude for students being able to vote.”
For the first time, there will be a polling place in the heart of campus, located in the Student Commons at 907 Floyd Ave, Rodriguez says. Registered voters in Precinct 214 — students and the general public — will need to enter through the Main and Cherry Street doors to access the Commonwealth Ballroom of the Commons. Polls open at 6 a.m.
On the opposite side of Broad Street at Virginia Union University, spokeswoman Pamela Cox says the school has also hosted a series of initiatives to spur political engagement on campus.
According to the NSLVE study, voter turnout rose between 2012 and 2016 at private four-year institutions, but fell at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) by nearly 10 percentage points. (The study mentions this statistic should be taken in context, as HBCUs had an unusually-high benchmark voting average in 2012). Although VUU was not one of the study’s participating institutions, it is both a private four-year school and an HBCU.
“Registering to vote is one of [students’] most important rights as a citizen of the United States,” Cox says. “We bring current lawmakers to campus so our students can ask questions and learn, first-hand, about current political topics and the responsibilities of those in elected office.”
Cox says VUU launched a social media campaign and registration drive in September with an appearance by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. The university also hosted visits from all levels of local government, including U.S. Reps. Dave Brat (R-7th) and Donald McEachin (D-4th), state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-9th) and Del. Jeff Bourne (D-71st), and Chris Hilbert, Richmond City Council president and 3rd District representative.
UR, another private four-year institution, also participated in the NSLVE study with VCU, but the report was not available for review by publication time Saturday.
Thomas explained that to enlist enough institutions’ participation in the study, the Tufts researchers agreed to release individualized reports to only one point of contact at each school, and therefore could not release UR’s individual report.
In a follow-up email Monday, university spokeswoman Sunni Brown shared the individual NSLVE report, which indicated UR broke even with the average of all participating institutions of 50.4 percent in 2016. In 2012, UR students voted at a slightly higher margin – 51.3 percent – which was 4.4 points above the average for all institutions.
Brown says that UR’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, in conjunction with departments and student organizations across campus, “is committed to helping students exercise their right to vote,” and that voter registration information tables were staffed at multiple locations on campus ahead of the registration deadline.
Additionally, Brown says that on Nov. 7, University Transportation will run free shuttles on a loop from campus to the polls for voters who are registered with their campus address. Brown says the shuttles will leave every 15 minutes from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m.
Thomas noted the importance of voter access, not just at the university level — but statewide policy. In Virginia, voters must cast their ballot in person and bring a photo ID (up to a year expired) with them to their polling place.
“It’s not lost on me that at least in our data, the voting rates went way down in places like Wisconsin and North Carolina where they have very strict voter ID laws and arguably some efforts to keep certain groups from voting,” Thomas says.
The study states that one of its limitations has to do with noncitizen students. Only 0.6 and 1.1 percent of NSLVE students were identified as noncitizens in 2012 and 2016 respectively, but the actual average of noncitizen students at NSLVE institutions was 3.9 and 4.8 percent those years. Thomas explained this is because not all participating institutions marked off noncitizen students (who are therefore ineligible to vote and would not be listed in state voting databases).
Although many noncitizen students in this category are international students, in Virginia, more than 1,000 students at public institutions are “Dreamers” — also known as participants in the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows individuals who entered the U.S. illegally as minors to apply for a renewable two-year period to work or attend school.
In September, the Trump administration announced it would rescind DACA and set a March 5 date for Congress to enact protections for those in the program, though recent reports indicate that Trump may extend the deadline. As of September 2017, VCU stated it had 70 self-reported DACA students.
In Virginia, roughly 12,000 individuals are protected by DACA — and though they are ineligible to vote, the issue has been a hot topic in the upcoming gubernatorial election. Gillespie stated that he hopes for a legislative solution, while Democrat Northam said the decision “tramples the American dream.”
Thomas underscored the importance of utilizing the right to vote for those who can.
“The research has highlighted something that I think everybody already knows, which is that low participation means that politicians aren’t going to pay attention to you,” Thomas says. “So, the importance of voting, I think, is increasing. Not just for college students, but non-college students — and particularly for students that come from groups that are historically marginalized or are low-voting.”
Bryant, of Virginia21, echoed this idea.
“I just want people to vote,” she says. “Too much is on the line in this election that will affect Virginia for years, if not decades, considering the next governor will oversee redistricting [of voting districts].”