Ted Byrd

City council member Ted Byrd greets a voter outside of Spotswood Elementary on election day last year.

While Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, George Mason University and Liberty University all offer on-campus locations where students can vote, JMU falls behind in offering on-campus residents the ability to vote without having to head off campus.

Josh Humphries, a junior political science major and chair of the SGA legislative action committee, is trying to make civic engagement and access to voting easier for JMU students by establishing a voting precinct on campus.

He aims to propose the on-campus voting location with the Harrisonburg City Council in the coming weeks, but will first speak with the Harrisonburg City Electoral Board. Before the city council votes to approve or deny the proposal, they’ll seek advice from the board. Humphries hopes that if he can sell the board on his proposal, the process of approval from the city council should be streamlined and JMU can join other Virginia universities in offering on-campus voting.

“... A lot of our rival and sister institutions have voting precincts on campus,” Humphries said. “So I think it is only in an effort that if we want to be the institution known for the namesake of the father of the Constitution, it make[s] sense that we start doing some things to get our students directly involved in the democratic process.”

The voting location would allow students who live on campus to vote on campus, rather than going elsewhere in Harrisonburg. Humphries’ plan suggests putting voting booths in the Convocation Center instead of having students shuttle over to the current precinct at Spotswood Elementary School. At this point, there’s no mention of extending an on-campus polling location to those who live in apartments off campus.

The University of Virginia, George Mason University, Virginia Tech and Liberty University have each seen an increase in voter turnout, with the Campus Vote Project reporting 2,562 votes at U.Va. for the 2012 general election, the first election where on-campus voting was offered.

Humphries has received support from senior political science and media arts and design double major Megan DiMaiolo and junior international affairs major Jessica Reed on this project. DiMaiolo and Reed are members of the College Democrats of America and Virginia21, respectively.

At JMU, students who live on campus and who are registered to vote have to find their own way to Spotswood Elementary School, the designated voting location for on-campus students.

“I have a big Suburban and I try to shuttle as many kids as possible,” Wes Fisher, chairman of College Republicans at JMU and senior political science major, said. “We put out a thing with the College Republicans, we have people volunteer to drive people to the polls.”

In the 2013 state elections, there were only three buses sponsored by the Harrisonburg Democratic Committee to pick up students by Miller Hall. Three buses and the possibility of a lines at the voting center left DiMaiolo, who volunteered during that election, bombarded by students asking questions about how long the whole process would take.

“There is only so much money to use for busing, and it takes time,” DiMaiolo said. “So if someone has a class in 20 minutes they don’t want to go get on a bus that it might take them an hour for the loop to go around. So while it has been a great resource, it would definitely be easier to have a precinct on campus.”

Creating a precinct on campus doesn’t only require student involvement, but active participation by the Harrisonburg City Council. A vote by the council would officially change precinct boundaries in Harrisonburg to allow a new precinct to form on campus.

In previous elections, the number of college-aged voters (18 to 29 age range) is typically low. The Washington Post cites only 23 percent of that population voted during the 2010 midterm elections. Turnout grew more during the 2012 presidential election with a 45 percent turnout in that age group.

In addition, the Campus Vote Project reports that college campuses that have on-campus precincts generally see a 17 percent increase in voter turnout for young adults.

“It would be up to them [the students] to be educated on the issues, but that is where having a voter precinct on campus would encourage students to look out for the issues and to become more educated,” Reed said. “That is like [how] our Virginia21 works to educate students on the issues. But it is also the students’ jobs to be engaged.”

However, Harrisonburg City Council Member Abe Shearer said that an on-campus precinct is probably not viable, as it would cost the taxpayers upward of $20,000 to redistrict the existing precincts. There needs to be committee action on how to even out the districts and analysts would be brought in to do these computations, according to Shearer.

Shearer mentioned that prior to the 2012 election, Harrisonburg underwent a redistricting which cost the city taxpayers about $50,000. The city did this to alleviate unbalanced numbers in the previous five precincts. The city currently has seven voting precincts.

“It would be a tough sell to constituents that represent 20,000 college students and 30,000 Harrisonburg residents,” Shearer said. “It would be hard to convince them to spend that money. It is always a burden to go vote. On the convenience side it makes sense, but hard to consider on the economics on it.”

If the polling location was implemented on campus, then the more than 6,000 students that live on campus could have the opportunity to vote.

Current Harrisonburg city mayor Chris Jones favors the idea of JMU having a voting precinct, but thinks that students have a responsibility to vote regardless of location.

“A student voting precinct at JMU would pull more students into the process of local and state government,” Jones said in an email. “I believe adding this precinct would build a stronger relationship between JMU students and the city of Harrisonburg especially.”

There is a consensus among DiMaiolo, Humphries and Reed that despite the cost to the city, a JMU voting precinct would greatly benefit the community.

“We exist in a partnership with the city and we should be trying to make voting easier,” Humphries said.