Voting Voting

With COVID-19 restrictions, misinformation and looming deadlines, it can be confusing to know what to do as college students.

LEXINGTON-When college students started classes last month, they brought laptops, iPhones and hand sanitizer to campus. But that wasn’t all. Many also brought their voter registration. For years, people claimed college students didn’t want to vote, that it was pointless for campaigns to target younger residents. But the numbers prove that’s not true. 

A study from Tufts University found 45.1 percent of college students voted in the 2012 presidential election. For reference, America had 10.3 million college students that year, according to US Census data. That number rose in 2016, the same study found, climbing to 48.3 percent. Now, with more than 16.6 million undergraduates in 2020, a new poll from NextGen America shows more students than ever want to get involved. Specifically, 77% of those who didn’t vote in 2016 plan to cast a ballot this year. 

“There is a myth that young people don’t vote,” said Temi Amoye, NextGen’s Virginia director. “Young people are at the forefront of this election and they care deeply about a brighter future for the next generation.” 

But voting, especially during a pandemic, brings questions. Can you vote in your college town? What do you need to bring to the polls? And then there’s the question of mail-in voting versus physically casting a ballot. With misinformation and changes due to COVID-19, it’s easy to get confused. Here are some tips to help college students in Virginia be sure their ballot gets counted.  

How Can I Register To Vote?

It’s easy to get confused with this part, as some people will try to tell you college students can’t register to vote in Virginia. That’s simply not true. To clear it up, let’s go straight to the Virginia Board of Elections website. 

“A dormitory or college address can be an acceptable residential address and does not disqualify you from voting,” the site says. 

A college dorm address or apartment counts as a residence, so yes, you can register to vote in your college town. In fact, you still have time to do that for this year’s election, although there are some rules to follow. You have to register in person, online or by mail 22 days before the election. For this year’s Election Day, that means the deadline to register is Tuesday, Oct. 13.

As for how and where to do it, there are a few options. First, your local public library can help out. That includes the facility on your college campus. Second, you can register yourself online by clicking this link. Your college town also has a local elections office that can walk you through the process. 

But if you don’t want to try any of those options, you can simply ask a classmate for help. Across Virginia, college groups like JMU’s Center for Civic Engagement register students to vote each year. Over the last six years alone, through their efforts, the number of JMU students registered to vote increased 300%. That didn’t change this fall, even with the threat of COVID-19.

“We were only on campus for one week before going virtual, but during that time we were able to table on the quad three different days,” said Sarah Gully, a graduate student at JMU and member of the Center. “We had lots of students stop and ask for more information, request absentee ballots and register to vote for the first time.” 

It’s something Gully takes pride in. 

“College students are on a trend of increasing voter turnout, and candidates would be wise to not discount the college vote,” she said. 

Can College Students Qualify For Other Options?

But what if you can’t cast a vote on Election Day? Maybe you have to work or there’s just no time in between classes. In Virginia, you can request an absentee ballot or take part in early voting, which starts Sept. 18. Your local board of elections website will have dates and times when early voting sites are open. As for an absentee ballot, you can request that through this application. Thanks to a bill passed in this month’s special General Assembly session, return postage will be paid by the commonwealth. You can drop off the ballot at a designated site, put it in the mail or return it in person.

The deadline to request an absentee ballot is Friday, Oct. 23. The local election official must receive the request by 5 p.m. that same day. But this year, sooner is better. Due to COVID-19, a large number of people want to vote absentee. As of Sept. 10, state officials confirmed, more than 756,000 people had requested an absentee ballot. That’s 110,000 more than the final total for 2016. Why is this important? Larger numbers often lead to delays if you request a ballot late. So if you want an absentee ballot, now’s the time to ask for one.

You also need to ask early because of delays with the mail. In order to count, absentee ballots must be returned by 7 p.m. on Election Day. The sooner you ask, the quicker you can ship it back.

How Do I Vote in Person? 

For those who do decide to vote in person, come prepared. In Virginia, you have to show a valid form of ID to cast a ballot. Now that can mean a number of items, including a student ID. The Virginia Board of Elections states any student ID issued by a community college or university qualifies as acceptable ID at the polling place. Other acceptable documents include a Virginia driver’s license, United States passport, employer-issued photo IDs, a paycheck or even a copy of a current utility bill containing the voter’s name and address.

Now if you show up to vote without ID, you’ll be required to sign a statement. It simply says you are the registered voter you claim to be. Election officials then verify that claim, to make sure someone else isn’t using your name.

If you refuse to sign the statement, you can still vote by using what’s called a provisional ballot. In this case, you have to submit a copy of your ID in order for the vote to count. And the clock is ticking. Provisional voters have until noon on the Friday following the election to give their local elections office a valid ID. Otherwise, their vote will not count.

There are many important dates to know and proper identification methods for student’s to be aware of before casting a vote. However, the most important thing to remember this year for college students is no matter how you choose to vote, just make sure you do it. 

Erica Turman is a freelance writer with Dogwood. During her time in journalism, Turman’s bylines have been in the Waynesboro News Virginian, Franklin News Post and Martinsville Bulletin. Raised in the moonshine capital of the world, Franklin County, she and her husband make their home in Lexington.