Since the start of the school year, persistent voter registration volunteers have fanned out across UNC’s campus — shaking clipboards in the faces of stony-faced students sitting in the Pit and averting their eyes, or panting as they frantically speed-walk to class.
“Are you registered to vote at your Chapel Hill address?” they ask, over and over again.
But these political groups and volunteers should have been encouraging in-state UNC students to consider voting at home.
It’s no secret that youth voters tend to side with the Democratic Party. And Chapel Hill and Carrboro are considered liberal bastions in a “purple” state whose voters can often lean either way. Both towns have openly gay mayors and voted overwhelmingly in favor of Democrats in 2012, the last national election — nearly 76 percent supported Barack Obama.
There’s little to no chance that Chapel Hill’s political leanings will shift if fewer students vote in the town. In other regions of the state, however, students’ votes could make a difference.
Consider the race for North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District, pitting incumbent Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers against celebrity singer and Democrat Clay Aiken. The district, including Fayetteville, Fort Bragg and suburbs southwest of Raleigh, was drawn in 2010 to favor conservative candidates.
But Aiken, with his name recognition, is down just eight points and has a small chance at an upset.
Student voters who have permanent addresses in that district and would rather see a Democrat in Congress could head home to vote, or vote absentee. Given that North Carolina Republicans have gerrymandered their party into congressional and legislative majorities until at least 2020, Aiken’s candidacy represents a significant opportunity for a Democrat to steal an unexpected victory.
Furthermore, it is the N.C. General Assembly that can have the most direct impact on public university students — and the Republican supermajority in the current legislature has not prioritized the UNC system in its last two sessions.
If students want to encourage UNC-friendly policies, namely lower tuition and fewer budget cuts, they should cast votes for state Democratic candidates in their home districts in hopes of at least reducing the stronghold that the GOP maintains.
It is more of a hassle for students to drive home or submit an absentee ballot. But in the future, UNC’s voting advocates can begin efforts in mid-August, well in advance of early voting, to educate students about their options. They can employ their large volunteer base to explain why students’ votes might mean more in their home district.
The tireless voter registration efforts at UNC should be commended — just 23.5 percent of eligible voters aged 18-29 cast a ballot in the 2010 midterms, reflecting a gaping hole of nonvoters and room for improvement. During this cycle, students have a role to play in a U.S. Senate election that could determine the chamber’s majority.
But every North Carolina voter will cast a ballot for the Senate race, regardless of their town or city of residence. The elections for the U.S. House of Representatives and for the General Assembly are district-specific.
It’s too late for student political leaders to change their tune before the Oct. 10 registration deadline. But in the future, these advocates should keep in mind that while every vote matters, a vote elsewhere might have a greater impact than a vote in Chapel Hill.