A distressing trend has emerged amongst Virginians, and students at ODU are no exception. With the election for all 140 state legislature seats less than a month away, very few Virginians are aware, and even fewer are likely to vote. Yet students have the capacity to influence major change in the state legislature if they become engaged, organized and actually vote.
According to a recent poll from Christopher Newport University, “only 41 percent of voters say they have given quite a lot or some attention to the upcoming elections, while 58 percent say they have given little or no attention. Only 34 percent of voters say they have followed news about the candidates for House of Delegates and Virginia Senate, while 66 percent say they have not followed news very closely or at all.”
Voter turnout during non-presidential elections has been fairly low in Virginia for the past 20 years. Since 1995, the amount of registered voters that actually cast ballots in off-year elections averages around 40 percent. The CNU poll projects turnout this year to be around 26 percent.
This is distressing because, while national elections may get more public attention, the Republican-controlled Congress is gridlocked and at odds with a Democratic president, making policy reform on the national level extremely difficult at best. Meanwhile, state legislatures are frequently the battleground for social and financial issues, and this is where policy that most directly affects the average citizen is made.
When the federal government can’t or won’t step in, states are where decisions occur. Recent policy battles that are being decided in state legislatures across the country include gun control, marijuana legalization, abortion rights, Medicaid expansion and higher education, among many others.
Adding fuel to the fire, the 2015 Virginia legislative session will be a budget year, meaning state representatives will be deciding exactly how much money will be devoted to each issue.
“What you’re going to see in this coming session is all sorts of people standing in line fighting over every last dollar. It’s intense,” Stephen Heretick, the Democratic candidate running unopposed for the 79th district of the House of Delegates, said. The 79th district includes part of ODU’s campus, and much of the Lambert’s Point neighborhood.
Jesse Richman, associate professor of Political Science at ODU, said that unless the current balance of power shifts in the Virginia legislature, most of these social issues won’t be debated.
Currently, the Virginia Senate has 19 Democrats and 21 Republicans, and the House of Delegates has 33 Democrats and 67 Republicans. Although Republicans control the state legislature, they are up against a Democratic governor with veto power, making Richmond a microcosm of embattled Washington politics.
According to Richman, one of the major financial battles will be over education, and Heretick agrees. “You’re going to be hearing a lot of talk about education,” Heretick said. He pointed out that education is one of the first things to get cut every year. “You guys feel the brunt of the political games being played in Richmond,” he said.
According to Richman, the state budget will face significant challenges in 2015, which may lead to more cuts. “The state faces ongoing budgetary headwinds from weak federal spending,” he said. He added that recent layoffs, including Newport News Shipbuilding and BAE systems, two shipyards and major local employers, could start affecting the state budget.
Heretick blames stubbornness and shortsightedness in Richmond as the major challenge to funding important programs, even if it means raising taxes. “There’s a lot of people who don’t see beyond the next budget,” Heretick said. “You’re not cutting through flesh, you’re cutting through bone.”
So what can students do to influence change in Richmond?
Heretick won the primary election in his district with roughly 2500 votes. “If only one-third of ODU voted, they could have taken that election and done what they wanted,” he said. In fact, 2500 is closer to one-tenth of the total ODU population, and a little more than half the number of students living on campus.
While only a fraction of those students live in Heretick’s district, it’s still sobering to realize how much political clout students could wield if they were more informed, organized and engaged. “Most of the people who vote are over the age of 50,” Heretick said. “As long as they have control over the ballot box, nothing will change.”
In Lynchburg, Va., Liberty University students were able to propel a local politician to the House of Delegates in a 2009 election. Around 3,200 students were eligible to vote in Lynchburg, and the university canceled classes and provided busses to take students to polling locations. Scott Garett won by only 200 votes, largely attributed to students.
One of the major obstacles students face is simple apathy. Many students don’t know about the election, don’t care or don’t think their votes matter.
“I think, given the irresponsibility of major parties in providing choices, that apathy is justified, but it could be transformed into activism,” Richman said, citing the number of legislative candidates running unopposed in the election. Instead of simply opting out, students could instead opt to organize, engage, and exercise real power in the electoral process.
Heretick touted the power of social media as a major potential tool for political organization among students. “Richmond doesn’t keep up with that. Students can use that to follow issues, organize, and harness significant power. You’ll see a fundamentally different Richmond,” Heretick said.
In 2010, a William and Mary student was elected to the Williamsburg city council largely due to student support and a campaign that focused equally on traditional campaigning tactics and coordinated use of social media.
Another thing students can do, according to Richman, is vote absentee. Students have the option of registering to vote with either their ODU address or their home address. If students register with their home addresses, they can cast absentee ballots rather than driving home to make their votes in person.
The representatives for both House districts that cover ODU are running unopposed, meaning student votes in these districts will make no difference. Although the sixth Senate district (which encompasses ODU) is a contested race, student votes will probably have more impact if they are cast in their home districts, as more of these elections are likely to be contested.
Richman also warned that students should be aware of voting requirements, including deadlines and necessary identification. The deadline for voter registration is Oct. 13, and the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot by mail is Oct. 27. The full voting requirements can be found at elections.virginia.gov, and students can register online at vote.virginia.gov.