On Nov. 2, the Rockingham County Voter Registrar’s Office will offer extended hours for Rockingham County and the city of Harrisonburg. Extending the hours, which has been in practice for five years, allows citizens to vote in-person absentee, an option created for voters who may be out of town, working or unable to reach their polling station during Election Day.
The registrar offers a total of four days with extended office hours. Saturday, Nov. 2 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. is the last day of the extended hours, and the last day voters can vote absentee in person before Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 5.
Lisa Gooden, the director of elections for Rockingham County, said that state law requires the office to be open for two Saturdays before any general election — or at least two eight-hour additional days — while primary elections only require one Saturday prior to the election.
“Certainly, we want to serve folks sufficiently,” Gooden said. “We know that some are working and may not get home until after 5 p.m., so this is an opportunity for them to come in and exercise the right to vote during any election.”
In-person absentee voting is an option at this location for citizens registered to vote in Rockingham County or Harrisonburg. If students are registered in their home precincts, they’re required to mail in absentee ballots or travel to their registered polling stations on Election Day.
Carah Ong Whaley, the associate director of the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement, said students are often confused or uneducated about their voting options during election cycles, which can limit their ability or motivation to participate.
“We need to do a better job overall of explaining why voting matters,” Whaley said.
While motivation is the biggest factor in determining if a student will or will not vote, Whaley said, she also believes that a lack of knowledge about the voting process leads to low participation. The Center for Civic Engagement finds it necessary for students to be educated about all of their voting options, like in-person absentee voting, so they can evaluate their preferred method of participation.
Data from the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement shows that of the students who voted, 1,263 in 2014 and 3,936 in 2018 voted in person on Election Day. This means that of the total students who voted, 57.7% of students voted on Election Day in 2018 versus nearly 75% in 2014. Whaley said this is a significant drop for in-person numbers. While the 2018 in-person rates may seem larger, this is due to the general increase in total voting in 2018; the 2018 absentee voting rate is much higher than the in-person voting, which can be mostly attributed to students being increasingly registered in their home districts and mailing in absentee ballots.
“We are finding that more students are registered when they get to campus,” Whaley said. “Students are in a unique position, that they can choose to register and vote in Harrisonburg or Rockingham or wherever their home locality is.”
That position gives students flexibility when they decide how they’ll vote if they’re informed about their voting options. Whaley said the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement believes in the importance of educating students in a non-pressured, classroom environment that allows educators to go through the election process.
Overall, the 2018 voting rates of JMU students show a significant increase from 2014, which can be attributed to civic engagement education and, possibly, increased interest and participation in politics of the student body. Ethan Gardner, a senior political science major, a fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement and the chairman for the Student Government Association legislative affairs committee, said he’s witnessed an increase in advocacy and political engagement on campus since he arrived in 2016.
“People often say that students are apathetic,” Gardner said, “But also, students are in a situation with the way the system of registration and voting is set up … every time you move, you have to register, but those processes aren’t always clear, and there’s arbitrary deadlines.”
Third-party organizations on campus approach students about registering in Harrisonburg, but Whaley said she believes that they often register students to vote without the necessary information on the mechanics of the election process. Third parties focus on tabling around campus, which Whaley believes is less effective than classroom visits.
Whaley has found that students can have the motivation to participate in an election but find they can’t vote because they’re registered in the wrong location or are blocked by some other obstacle that could’ve been corrected. Gardner agreed that motivation to vote in fellow students often isn’t lacking — it’s the lack of information disseminated about voting options, such as the ability to vote in-person absentee with the office’s extended hours.
“In-person absentee and those processes to help remove barriers to voting are extremely important,” Gardner said. “But just as important is the communication of [those options]. Even as someone who is very, very active in this stuff, I still learn new things about how opportunities to vote work. It falls on the students to be informed, but it also falls on the registrar’s offices to be effectively communicating.”
CORRECTION (Nov. 4, 4:30 p.m.): A previous version of this article stated that in-person absentee voting is only available at the location for citizens registered to vote in Rockingham County or Harrisonburg. In actuality, City voters must vote in person at City Hall, while those voting in the county vote at the county admin building.
Contact Jamie McEachin at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.