On-Grounds Voter Registration Efforts in Full Swing

September 17, 2008

September 17, 2008 — Voter registration efforts on Grounds started with a bang this summer when more than 850 incoming first-years picked up registration or absentee ballot request forms during summer orientation. Efforts have ramped up since the start of classes in late August, with registration tables manned nearly every day outside of Newcomb Hall and teams of students with forms and clipboards wading through crowds at football games and other major events.

These efforts are the work of the Voter Registration Coalition, organized by U.Va.'s Center for Politics. The coalition brings together more than a dozen U.Va. groups, including Student Council, the College Republicans and University Democrats.

Altogether, the coalition has given out more than 1,400 voter registration forms and absentee ballots, and local registrars' offices have seen more than 2,300 new registrations in recent weeks, driven in part by students.

The city of Charlottesville has added more than 2,000 voters to its rolls since Aug. 1 — more than a 10 percent jump in total voters. "That's tremendous. I've never seen anything like it," said city registrar Jackie Harris, who has worked as a registrar for the past 18 years.

Though she could not provide a specific breakdown, she said she is confident that "a good part" of those registrations were from U.Va. students, based on age and addresses popular with students, since she did a good portion of the data entry recording each registration.

In Albemarle County, the past two weeks have brought a flood of more than 300 registrations from the two precincts that include and abut Grounds, where students predominate, Albemarle registrar Jake Washburne said.

The Voter Registration Coalition works to make registration as easy as possible. "We literally do everything but fill out the actual form for folks," coalition chairwoman Marta Cook said. "I always stress that this is the absolute easiest way to register to vote."

Cook, whose Lawn room serves as an unofficial voter registration headquarters, has trouble keeping up with the daily demands for registration forms. Every day at least one person swings by her room asking for registration forms, advice or help.

"Now it's crunch time and everyone is motivated," Cook said, noting that Virginia's registration deadline is Oct. 6. "People feel a sense of urgency and the high stakes in this election."

Often those who contact her want to try and register peers in a student group or class, or at an upcoming event.

"That's exactly how it should work," said Cook, who noted that the best results come when people organically spread the word and organize within their own communities. "I try to do my best to coordinate everyone's excitement about this issue.

"My real goal is to make sure that U.Va. is a 100 percent registered campus. That may sound crazy, but there's really no reason not to reach everyone."

Cook has been a leader of the coalition's registration efforts on Grounds for the past three years. (The coalition first started in 2004). She was drawn to the work by the tangible results.

"You could count the registrations each day," she noted, in contrast to other political efforts that sometimes involved lots of time spent "in committees and meetings without much to show for it."

Cook and Bruce Vlk, a Center for Politics staff member who supports the coalition, agree that the 1,400 registration forms and absentee ballots that they have handed out are significantly fewer than the total number of registrations and absentee ballots that have been put in motion due to their efforts; the coalition can't tabulate the forms that students personally drop in the mail.

But they're all working toward the one tally that really counts — Election Day.

— By Brevy Cannon