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Getting out the student vote

This is how some of Virginia’s HBCU student government presidents are pushing their colleges’ student bodies to vote.

Heading into election season, students who have taken on leadership roles at the state’s HBCUs shared why they believe it is crucial that their peers use their voice to spark change this November.

Linei Woodson

Former Norfolk State University student body president Linei Woodson expressed that something the university takes into consideration is the connection between students and voting. The students took a trip to the General Assembly, which is the legislative body of the commonwealth of Virginia.

As a public university, Norfolk State is partly funded by the state of Virginia so politicians make decisions on funding and more that directly impact the campus.

“We took a bunch of students to go talk about current things that we are voting on,” Woodson said. “We tried to focus on, especially under my leadership, letting people know that it’s okay to vote and not just focus on the presidential vote but to also be the change that you wish to see.”

If voting in-person at a polling station isn’t an option for you due to COVID-19, you can request an absentee ballot. Woodson explained that since she recently moved from Virginia to Florida, voting by mail was her best choice.

“Back home in Northern Virginia, since we have these issues going on with the mail service that could delay people having their ballots getting counted, they’re doing it early,” Woodson said. “I sent my information online, my mom and my family went out and voted so it can be counted and sent ahead.”

Austin Sams

Austin Sams, the student body president at Hampton University, mentioned that being timely and knowledgeable on your voting plan could provide a better voting experience.

“College students’ votes are historically disenfranchised... and polling places are not always accessible,” he said. “So, trying to reevaluate, acknowledge that and try to get in front of it early is something that I think is really important, especially as we head into a really important presidential election.”

Hampton uses student organizations in an attempt to get students on campuses registered to vote. Recently, the university sponsored a Sept. 8 registration kickoff called “Our Power and Our Legacy” where student government members collaborated with two other organizations to challenge one another in an attempt to see which group could register the most students. Similarly, Virginia State University organized events with efforts to gather students in order to be informed and educated on the voting process.

Student body president Kameron Gray is adamant about his fellow classmates voting, while also studying and getting to know the candidates. “We have forums and events to make sure everyone knows about different candidates and make sure that they know who they’re voting for. Certain people may not know who a candidate is and they may just go out and vote,” he said. “That’s not being a sound voter.”

Kameron Gray

Gray, who plans to become an elected official in another capacity down the line, says students shouldn’t prioritize the presidential election over the ones happening in their backyard.

Chesterfield County, which includes Virginia State University, has a race for Treasurer including candidates Michael Jackson (D) and Rebecca R. Longnaker (R).

“Definitely do your research on the candidates to make sure that they align with your vision,” Gray said. “Always vote for your state and local elections because those elections are the elections that actually impact you the most.”

Sams shared the same sentiment: As young adults, he said, who students decide as their next electee doesn’t just impact them now, but also in the years to come. “We are about to leave college and go into the workforce, whatever that may look like,” he said. “So it’s important that we really evaluate the people that are on the ballot — from president all the way down to your local school board elections — and think about the people that are going to not only impact our lives moving forward, but eventually our kids lives and our loved ones later on down the road.”

Regardless of who students vote for, Gray simply wants to ensure that the student body has the right resources and organizations to aid in the voting process. He invites students to reach out to the Association of Political Science, an organization that provides knowledge on the candidates and which he’s a part of.

“Be a sound voter,” he said. “Don’t just vote for who people tell you to vote for,” Gray said. Even by not voting, Gray said, students have made an important decision about their future. If they don’t make their voice heard at the ballot box, they have sent a message either way, Gray argues.

“You are responsible for yourself, you are accountable for yourself,” Woodson said. “Many people say, ‘My vote doesn’t count.’ Well ... I tell all my friends, by not voting, that is you voting.”

Next: HBCU professors in Virginia believe this election is unlike any of its predecessors, and here’s what they believe students and faculty alike can do other than vote.