RICHMOND, Va. (CNS) - All 140 seats of the Virginia legislature are up for election on Tuesday and college students across the state have been busy registering voters, hosting town halls and canvassing for candidates.
"College students are more likely to vote in 2019 than any other Virginia midterm because of the aggressive voter registration efforts at college campuses around the state this fall,” Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, said in an email.
Many eyes are on the student vote this election. According to the United States Census Bureau, the largest percentage point increase in voter turnout for any age group in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections was among 18- to 29-year-olds, when voter turnout spiked from 20 percent in 2014 to 36 percent in 2018.
Students at four-year institutions in Virginia make up around 5% of Virginia’s voting age population, according to an analysis of data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. In certain key districts students make up a larger portion of the voting population. House District 12 covers part of the Virginia Tech campus and the entire Radford University campus. Radford students make up 19% of the district.
"The impact of increased student voting also may shape races in districts without colleges and universities as some students choose to register to vote based on where they grew up, and others choose to register where they are going to school," Farnsworth said.
Grant Fox, press secretary for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said Democratic campaigns have worked closely with the party’s groups in university districts.
“Often the best voter registration and canvassing efforts on college campuses are run by students, and Democratic campaigns have been working with student organizers to register and mobilize young voters effectively," Fox said.
John Findlay, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, said Republicans always try for the student vote.
“Numerous campaigns have had internship programs and contacts with College Republican chapters,” Findlay said.
CNS reporters compiled information about student voter engagement and policy concerns from 14 Virginia college campuses with enrollment over 4,500 people. Political groups and campaign campus organizers were contacted.
Several themes echoed across campuses: concerns about climate change, varying views on gun control and a strong push to register as many students as possible.
Based on a CNS analysis of competitive races, redistricting changes and recent voting trends on Virginia Public Access Project, nine of these college campuses fall into competitive race districts. Candidates in some of these districts also weigh in on how they have focused on gaining student support.
Findlay said student turnout could “definitely” affect House Districts 85, 93, 91 and 12 and Senate Districts 6 and 7. He also said turnout could affect SD 10 and HD 28, “although most students live outside those districts.”
Christopher Newport University
Senate District 1: Democratic incumbent Monty Mason, running unopposed
House of Delegates District 94: Republican incumbent David Yancey; Democrat Shelly Simonds; Libertarian Michael Bartley (competitive)
The rematch between incumbent Yancey and Simonds could be impacted by higher student voter turnout. In 2017, the seat was decided by a tiebreaker determined by a random drawing from a ceramic bowl. The undergraduate enrollment is almost 4,900.
Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at CNU, said over email that student turnout can have an important impact on the outcome of elections big and small. She said the 18- to 24-year-old age group votes in exceedingly small numbers, as does the age cohort above them.
“This causes the population pyramid and the voting population pyramid to be inversed - and although younger Americans should make up the majority of voters they make up a small minority,” Bitecofer said. She added that even a small increase in turnout among college students can “have a profound impact.”
According to Bitecofer, a school the size of Virginia Commonwealth University can exert “great influence on the outcomes of these off off year elections which have low turnout overall.”
The challenge is a little harder for CNU because of the size of its student body, she said. “I think CNU is fairly reflective of other student bodies in that they care about issues like student loans and climate change,” Bitecofer said.
George Mason University
SD 34: Democratic incumbent Sen. Chap Petersen, running unopposed
HD 37: Democratic incumbent Del. David Bulova, running unopposed
There are over 26,000 undergraduate students at the university. The student-run George Mason Democrats organization provides voting education, hosts campus political events and canvasses dorm to dorm and house to house for get-out-the-vote efforts. Group member Erica Kelly expects a high voter turnout this off-election year.
“Ever since we got our campus precinct, our numbers have gone up and up,” Kelly said.
Registered GMU students can cast their ballot at the on-campus precinct in Murten Hall. The university registered 3,700 students to vote, according to Kelly. She expects around 2,000 will cast a ballot. George Mason Democrats will drive students to polling places on Election Day. They also helped register students for absentee voting. Fifty-three students voted absentee last year, Kelly said, but doesn’t have the numbers for this year.
The GMU College Republicans group is also visible on campus. The group has thrown efforts into phone banking and canvassing for local races in Northern Virginia ahead of the election, since both House and Senate candidates are incumbents running unopposed.
James Madison University
SD 26: Republican incumbent Mark Obenshain; Democrat April Moore
HD 26: Republican incumbent Tony Wilt; Democrat Brent Finnegan
JMU has more than 19,000 undergraduate students. Both House and Senate districts skew Republican, though HD 26 leans slightly more Democratic after redistricting.
Dukes Vote, a student-led initiative supported by JMU’s Center for Civic Engagement, is leading the school’s get-out-the-vote efforts.
Primarily focused on education and engagement, Dukes Vote said it has visited over 70 classes this fall to educate students about the voting process and offer voter registration.
“We have a traveling candidate town hall,” said Carah Ong Whaley, associate director of the Center for Civic Engagement. “We bring the candidates from all sides of the aisle to campus and they go to three different residence halls in one night to engage with students directly.”
Environmental issues weigh the heaviest in the minds of students, said Reilly Flynn, a sophomore studying English at JMU and political director for the JMU College Democrats.
“The climate crisis is very real and will be catastrophic,” Flynn said.
JMU College Republicans did not respond to a request for comment.
SD 23: Republican incumbent Stephen Newman, running unopposed HD 23: Democrat David Zilles; Republican Wendell Walker
With an undergraduate enrollment of 45,935, Liberty University has a College Republicans group and a College Libertarians group. The university is a Christian academic community. Its founder, Jerry Falwell, endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 and Ted Cruz announced his presidential campaign at Liberty, in 2015.
College Libertarians President Aaron Sobczak said that in previous years he had seen get-out-the-vote efforts from the school but nothing this year. He cited a pro-life stance on abortion and gun rights as the most important issues to students, but College Republicans Chairman Nathan Hines said the biggest issue for his group was convincing students to vote.
"It’s something we’ve always struggled with, especially with this generation being a little more liberal," Hines said. "We just keep informing our students and our members of the issues at hand and the importance of getting involved."
University of Mary Washington
SD 17: Republican incumbent Bryce Reeves; Democrat Amy Laufer. HD 28: Democrat Joshua Cole; Republican Paul Milde III (competitive)
The total enrollment at the university is over 4,700. District 28, which encompasses parts of Stafford County and Fredericksburg City (including UMW campus), is home to a particularly competitive race this election season between Democrat Cole and Republican Milde.
Farnsworth said most of the university’s students are keeping a close watch on the Cole-Milde race.
“District 28 was home to one of the closest elections in the Commonwealth two years ago, and an influx of student voters may end up being decisive in that contest, settled in 2017 by less than 100 votes out of more than 23,000 cast,” Farnsworth said. “The vast majority of Mary Washington students who have registered in Fredericksburg as city residents will be voting in the Milde-Cole race.”
Get-out-the-vote efforts on Mary Washington’s campus have been particularly robust this year with registration drives helping to get more students signed up or aware of how to fill out an absentee ballot, he added.
“Students have organized ride-shares to take students to the polls in Fredericksburg city, and that will also help boost student turnout,” Farnsworth said.
Norfolk State University
SD 5: Democratic incumbent Lionell Spruill running unopposed
HD 89: Democratic incumbent Jerrauld Jones running unopposed
Over 5,000 students are enrolled at NSU, a historically black college. Old Dominion University, located a few miles away, shares the same House District.
NSU is hosting actress Kerry Washington on Nov. 3 to discuss voting, activism and democracy. Norfolk State Young Democrats has also been campaigning for the competitive race in HD 81 between Republican incumbent Del. Barry Knight and Democratic challenger Lenard Myers, a CNU graduate.
The group also took over the university’s Instagram account on National Voter Registration Day, to help pump student voter registration. The university’s College Republicans group has not been active on their Facebook page since 2013 and no Republican group is listed on the university website.
Old Dominion University
SD 6: Democratic incumbent Lynwood Lewis; Republican Elizabeth Lankford (competitive)
HD 89: Democratic incumbent Jerrauld Jones, running unopposed
The undergraduate enrollment at ODU is 19,372. Sydney Johnson, president of the ODU Democrats, said that for the past two weeks students canvassed across the campus to emphasize the importance of students voting, especially given the competitive Senate race between Lewis and Lankford.
“This year, we have a lot of students canvassing,” Johnson said. “We do our best to get everybody active. Everybody knows what their polling location is. We remind people to vote.”
According to Johnson, some of the key issues that matter to students are student debt, immigration and police brutality. Johnson said she feels frustrated when she hears students, especially African Americans, ask her why they should vote.
“You’re a black American and it matters,” Johnson said.
ODU Democrats also made sure that students who aren’t native to Norfolk register for absentee ballots.
“There’s a lot of students who do an absentee ballot,” Johnson said. “In fact, I know two of my best friends are voting absentee.”
SD 38: Republican incumbent A. Benton Chafin; Independent George McCall III
HD 12: Democratic incumbent Chris Hurst; Republican T. Forrest Hite (competitive)
Hurst is getting out the vote to Radford University’s almost 8,000 undergraduate students and has registered around 1,000 students to vote between Radford and Virginia Tech universities, according to Geoffrey Preudhomme, former president of the Radford University Young Democrats.
Hurst ran an effective campaign, reaching young voters at Virginia Tech and Radford. “He unlocked the student vote,” Preudhomme said. “That's the only reason he won was because of the surplus [of votes] from Radford and Virginia Tech put him over the edge.”
Radford University Young Democrats lobbied to move a polling location closer to campus and will give rides to the polls, Preudhomme said. Students are concerned with student debt, climate change, marijuana legalization, gun violence, and LGBTQ, racial and gender equality.
College Republicans at Radford University said they haven’t had as much traction, according to their president, Jeff Geisinger.
“It's definitely been a struggle out here. So we haven't had the manpower to really participate in any door knocking or any registration, or anything for that matter,” Geisinger said. “We just have been trying to get people interested.”
According to Geisinger, the campus is very liberal. Conservative values such as the ability to openly carry firearms without government involvement, limited taxation and free market capitalism do not resonate with the student body, and Republicans on campus may not speak up, he said.
SD 7: Democrat Del. Cheryl Turpin and Republican candidate Jen Kiggans (competitive)
HD 85: Democrat Alex Askew; Republican Rocky Holcomb (competitive)
Regent has an undergraduate enrollment of 4,646. Holcomb hopes to get his House seat back after losing it to Turpin in 2017. And Turpin hopes to secure the open Senate seat in District 7, which has voted blue since the 2016 presidential election when voters were split between Trump and Hillary Clinton.
At Regent, student education is offered from a Christian perspective. According to Pew Research, in the 2018 midterms, most white evangelical Christians continued to support Republican candidates. The university provides voting registration information to students, along with the message: “Every vote counts!” Regent states on its website that it “neither supports nor opposes any candidate for public office.”
There is a Federalist Society on campus that hosts discussions surrounding national policy issues. The organization did not return a request for comment by time of publication.
Findlay agreed that a strong student voter turnout from Regent could help Republican candidates and said it “could definitely help both SD 7 and HD 85.”
Virginia Commonwealth University
SD 9: Democratic incumbent Jennifer McClellan; Libertarian Mark Lewis
SD 10: Republican incumbent Glen Sturtevant; Democrat Ghazala Hashmi (competitive) HD 68: Democratic incumbent Dawn Adams; Republican Garrison Coward
HD 71: Democratic incumbent Jeff Bourne; Libertarian Pete Wells
VCU has an undergraduate student enrollment of 24,058 according to U.S. News. VCU Votes Coalition will provide assistance to college students on Election Day. The coalition is formed by students and faculty who aim to promote voter engagement on campus. There is a polling location on campus at the Student Commons.
"We will be focused on helping students with their polling location, providing nonpartisan sample ballots and voting guides, and making sure they get to the polls,” said Madeline Doane, student leader of the program.
The coalition’s get-out-the-votes effort began months ago. VCU Votes said it has helped over 2,500 students register during the fall semester.
Doane said VCU Votes visited over 40 classes typically taken by freshmen to provide students with nonpartisan information about the elections. The coalition registered 100 new voters through this classroom initiative.
VCU Votes also organized forums and roundtables with local candidates to inform students, including a forum with Hashmi on Oct. 25.
The VCU Young Democrats worked to engage students through weekly meetings where they discussed the most pressing issues to the members and the general community, according to Kaylin Cecchini, vice president of the group.
“We’ve seen this has been successful; working jointly with other organizations, candidates, and officials we’ve seen a huge increase in student voter enthusiasm,” Cecchini said. “Voting is essential to having your voice heard and represented in government, so we work very hard to get as many students active in the political process as we possibly can.”
College Republicans of VCU could not respond to questions regarding student engagement and preparation for Election Day but offered the following comment through social media: “We value everyone's opinion and believe their voice should be heard in every election.”
Sturtevant did not return a request for comment. The Young Republican Federation of Virginia also did not respond.
Virginia State University
SD 16: Democrat Joseph Morrissey; Independent Waylin Ross
HD 66: Republican incumbent Kirk Cox; Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman (competitive)
The combined student population at this historically black college is approximately 4,600, according to the university. NextGen America has worked on the VSU campus since September, encouraging voter registration and “talking to students about the issues they care about,” Wafa May Elamin, NextGen Virginia organizer said.
On National Voter Registration Day, NextGen partnered with the Student Liaison Outreach Team, according to Elamin. The organization has also canvassed neighborhoods. Bynum-Coleman, Democratic candidate for HD 66, also joined the team.
Elamin said they have information tables at the student center and maintain visibility on campus to connect with students.
A big concern from students on campus is racial equity, according to Elamin. Other important issues include access to health care, being a part of low-income communities, and receiving quality education at their university.
“Those are a lot of the conversations that we’re having and they’re still continuing,” Elamin said.
The polling place for students is at Ettrick Elementary School, which is a “20-minute walk off campus,” according to Elamin. NextGen will shuttle students to the polling place and back to campus every 30 minutes.
In office since 1989, Cox is in a competitive race against Bynum-Coleman. Fundraising in 2019 was neck-and-neck, with Bynum-Coleman raising over $1.4 million and Cox raising over $1.3 million. Redistricting shifted by 32 percentage points in favor of Democrats, according to VPAP. Morrissey is already considered the projected winner of SD 16, though he faces Independent Waylin Ross on the ballot.
Democratic leadership, including former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, have recently supported Morrissey.
SD 21: Democratic incumbent John Edwards; Independent Steve Nelson
HD 7: Republican incumbent Larry Rush; Democrat Rhonda Seltz
HD 12: Democratic incumbent Chris Hurst; T. Forrest Hite (competitive)
The undergraduate enrollment is almost 28,000. Virginia Tech’s campus is home to multiple political organizations including the Young Democrats, College Republicans, Green Party and Young Americans for Liberty.
The Young Democrats at Virginia Tech are usually “the ones that are typically standing outside and yelling at people to make sure people are registered,” said Virginia Tech political science student Annika Klingen.
The College Republicans at Virginia Tech host get-out-the-vote call nights and attend town hall meetings.
Klingen mentioned a couple important issues to students.
“Climate change is the No. 1 biggest one on this campus,” she said.
She also said that in the aftermath of protests over Virginia Tech’s handling of a Title IX case in April that women’s issues have become a prevalent topic on campus as well.
Most on-campus students vote at Squires Student Center, while the military segment of the student population, the Corps of Cadets, and off-campus students vote at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church.
Hurst has campus organizers at Virginia Tech to help register voters and knock on doors. According to his campaign manager, Michelle Moffit, Hurst represents more students than anyone in the Virginia General Assembly. Moffit said they are “hyper-aware” of the student vote and that it is crucial to their district.
Hurst’s opponent, Forrest Hite, did not respond to a request for comment.
College of William & Mary
SD 1: Democratic incumbent T. Monty Mason, running unopposed
HD 93: Democratic incumbent Michael Mullin; Republican Heather Cordasco (competitive)
The Young Democrats recently held a tailgate event, which was attended by McAuliffe, Mason and Mullin. The group canvassed on weekends throughout the semester.
Mullin said that student outreach has been a major focus of his campaign’s get-out-the-vote effort.
“Lots of the issues we vote on in the General Assembly impact students’ lives,” Mullin said. “With so many important issues on the ballot, we feel confident they’ll turn out and vote next Tuesday.”
Mullin’s opponent, Cordasco, did not respond to a request for comment.
University of Virginia
SD 25: Democratic incumbent Creigh Deeds; Independent Elliot Harding
HD 57: Democrat Sally Hudson, running unopposed
There are 16,777 undergraduate students and 7,862 graduate students at UVA, for a total of 24,639 on the grounds, according to the university. Both the University Democrats at UVA and College Republicans at UVA have been active in outreach to the student body. Both groups have also been vocal about the political impact of holding exams on Election Day, according to the university paper.
Though there is no competitive race in the district, groups have canvassed for other districts and emphasized the importance of voting.
The College Republicans recently canvassed for Cox, Kiggans and Stolle.
Along with stressing the importance of voter turnout, College Democrats said on Facebook that flipping the House and Senate blue will give Democrats “the ability to make real tangible change in Richmond and push for policy that we are passionate about, such as gun control, the ERA and LGBTQ rights, to name a couple things.”
Why is this election different?
This is the first state legislative election since the election of Trump, who lost Virginia to Clinton, and the beginning of increased Democratic resistance movements at all levels of government.
“He has dominated the news cycle nearly every day of his presidency, and that intense media and public focus on politics has more people than ever paying attention to his actions,” Farnsworth said.
This election, 85 of the 140 seats are contested by a major party compared to 49 seats contested by a major party in 2015.
Historic fundraising totals also reflect the momentum Democrats are trying to gain in the legislature. House and Senate Democrats raised a combined $62 million during the current election cycle (2016-2019) while Republicans raised just shy of $48 million, according to VPAP. And Democrats have spent almost $24 million more to secure the House, compared to 2015.
Farnsworth said this year’s election is pivotal because Republicans hold a narrow majority in both chambers of the legislature. Republicans lead in the House 51-48, with one seat vacant. They lead in the Senate 20-19, with one seat vacant.
Taking a wider view, Democrats haven’t held both the General Assembly and the executive branch in a generation, according to political analyst Bob Holsworth. Democrats last held the majority in the House in 1999 and Democrats had control of the Senate in 2007, but also briefly controlled the Senate after the 2013 elections and following special elections with a 20-20 split, Holsworth explained. Ralph Northam was lieutenant governor at the time, but control didn’t last after a Democratic senator resigned and they lost the special election, he said.
Republicans have not lost hope for holding the majority despite the gap in fundraising.
“Money doesn't vote, the constituents do, and our polls show us that I am still ahead," said Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, in a previous CNS interview.
The National Rifle Association said they aren’t concerned by the cash injection on the other side of the gun lobby from Everytown for Gun Safety. Everytown donated almost $1.5 million to Democrats this year, compared to the NRA’s $350,269 to Republicans.
“I’ve been at this for nearly 30 years and I’ve seen time and again our voters swing key elections,” said Glen Caroline, head of the NRA’s Grassroots Programs and Campaign Field Operations Division, in a previous CNS interview. “I am aware of all the money our opponents are spending, but I’m not intimidated.”
The party with the majority will yield influence when the General Assembly takes up redistricting in 2021. Virginia usually redistricts every 10 years around the Census but in 2018, 25 House Districts in the central and southeastern part of the state were redistricted following a court order.
Students around Virginia have made it clear they plan to show up on Election Day.
“Young people tell pollsters they are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican by about a 60-40 margin, an engaged student population is more likely to help Democratic candidates,” Farnsworth said.
Election Day is Tuesday, and the polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. The newly elected legislators will assume office the second Wednesday in January following the election.
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.