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Student voter participation unpredictable

By Staff | Nov 6, 2009

If the proposed annexation of Shepherd University’s West Campus dormatories is approved, Shepherdstown’s potential voting population would increase by over 600 resident students. A persistent issue raised during public hearings on the annexation has been the potential impact which residential Shepherd students could have on municipal politics. If the annexation is approved, over half of Shepherdstown’s population would be composed of residential students. Currently, Shepherdstown’s population is estimated to be over 1,100, a third of which are residents of Shepherd University’s East Campus dorms.

So, what can one expect from young voters in municipal elections?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t quite so clear. While there is ample research into the voting habits of young people during Presidential and mid-term elections, there is almost no peer-reviewed research into the local voting behaviors of young Americans, says Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Egagement at Tufts University in Bedford, Mass. CIRCLE studies the political behaviors of Americans aged 15-24.

Lacking information on the specific dynamics of the young municipal electorate, Levine says that some national level trends should be considered. For insatnce, says Levine, you can expect that at least half of residential students registered to vote are registered at their hometown precincts where they grew up.

Levine also notes the timing of the election, held in the first week of June, about three weeks after most residential students have moved out of the dorms, as a barrier to student involvement in municipal politics. The West Virginia early voting period runs for 17 days, starting 20 days ahead of the normal election day. During the upcoming 2010 municipal election, early voting won’t start until eight days after the last day of final exams, long after most students have returned home for the summer.

“Student turnout, because of these factors, would be predicted to be very low,” says Levine.

But Shepherdstown’s voting population could also be called low. In the last municipal election, only 232 people cast votes for Mayor, this from a town of over 1,100, including East Campus students. Former Councilwoman and current Recorder Lori Robertson won a seat with 119 votes.

“Even though student turnout may normally be low, if the regular turnout is also low, the election would be extremely unpredictable, especially if you only need to get 60 or 100 votes, especially in the age of Facebook,” says Levine. “That’s one person’s group of friends.”

Throughout the recent annexation debate, former Councilman Frank Salzano has been highlighted as an example of the impact which the youth vote can have on municipal politics. Salzano was elected to town council in 2004 at the age of 21 during his final year at Shepherd. Despite campaign promises to finish his term, Salzano resigned after graduating from Shepherd to seek employment elsewhere.

Mayor Jim Auxer, while noting in public hearings that Salzano’s contribution to municipal politics was “interesting,” also points out that Salzano was not a dormatory student. He was a year-round resident living in an apartment on German Street. Mayor Auxer also points out that Salzano actively campaigned throughout all of Shepherdstown, and wasn’t dependent soley upon student voting to win a Council seat.

Salzano ended up recieving 164 votes, the third highest vote total of all the Town Council candidates in 2004, drawing more votes than even then-incumbent Mayor Peter Wilson who was running for a council seat. Under municipal law, the five Council candidates with the most votes are awarded seats on the Town Council.

Shepherdstown is, of course, not the only city in the state which must deal with a relatively large resident student population. Morgantown, for instance, is a city with over 26,000 people living within it’s borders, 45 percent of whom are between the ages of 15-24, according to Census 2000 data. Sixteen percent of the city of Morgantown lives in dormatories, many more students live in off-campus housing.

Despite these large numbers of university students, former Morgantown mayor from 1991 to 1998 and current state legislator Charlene Marshall (D-Mungo), says she didn’t see much in the way of student politico’s when she was Mayor, but she did see the benefits of student participation in civic life through volunteering. Her advice for municipalities dealing with a large student population: reach out to them.

“I would tell them to work with the students.” Said Marshall, if the students are properly engaged, they can be a great asset for a town. “I had a wonderful time working with students on campaigns and civic volunteerism.”

Shepherd University’s petition to annex the West Campus dormatories still has to be approved by the Planning Commission, which will hold its second reading of the petition on Monday, Nov. 9. If passed by the Planning Commission, the petition will get the first of two readings infront of the Town Council they very next night during the regular monthly Council Meeting.