The voters started arriving, masked and physically distancing, at the Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center early on Oct. 15, and they kept coming throughout the early voting period ending on Saturday, Oct. 31. In all, 12,694 voters cast ballots at Duke’s early voting site, outpacing the previous record for early voting at Duke of 10,003, which was set during the 2018 midterm elections.
The record was passed Tuesday of this past week. Of the 14 early voting sites in Durham County, Duke’s finished second in terms of total ballots cast, behind only the South Regional Library, the major early voting site for all of South Durham.
The large number of voters showed heavy motivation for voting in the 2020 election, despite pandemic conditions. North Carolina election officials said more than half of all North Carolina registered voters cast ballots during early voting. Nationally, news reports have suggested that across the United States, more than 150 million votes will be cast this year, setting a new record.
But the vote total was also boosted by comprehensive turnout efforts, including one led by a non-partisan student-run group, Duke Votes, which started early to get resources and information into the hands of students and community members. From voter registration drives across campus to standing outside of the East Campus wall on Broad Street guiding passersby to the Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center, it has been hard to miss the student effort over the past month.
“Our strategy has always been to meet people where they are to ensure they have everything they need to vote,” said Jessica Sullivan, a student leader with Duke Votes. “We worked with RAs, professors, staff and student groups, among others, to make that a reality.
“Young people vote at lower rates not because they aren't interested in politics, but because they often do not have established voting habits and need more logistical information to feel confident voting. Our role has been to provide that information.”
To reach people “where they are,” Sullivan said Duke Votes used tools from smart phones to collaborations with students at UNC-Chapel Hill. The work started before early voting with a voter registration drive that registered 858 people this semester. Other initiatives included:
Text banks to inform students about early voting and reminding them to vote on Tuesday, Election Day;
A concerted effort to give students living on campus information about early voting by posting voting information cards on residence hall doors;
“Apartment Ambassadors” working with local buildings that have significant student populations to provide voting information including the building's Election Day precinct;
Painting the East Campus bridge to encourage voter participation;
Two virtual “couch parties,” one in collaboration with UNC, to encourage students to help their friends make a plan to vote.
In addition to the student-led efforts, a “voting cabinet” of administrators, faculty, staff and students coordinated communications and activities across the campus.
“The efforts put forth by the Voting Cabinet (co-chaired by Chris Simmons and Mike Schoenfeld) as well as Polis and the Duke Votes student commitment were unlike any I have seen over the past four decades at Duke,” said Sue Wasiolek, associate vice president for student affairs and a member of the cabinet.
“Collaborative and coordinated, all constituencies at the university came together to create and communicate a clear, consistent and ongoing message to register to vote and to vote early, if possible. And, the availability and convenience of [the early voting site at] the Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center certainly contributed to the overall success.”
President Vincent Price and Head Men’s Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski distributed multiple messages providing voting information. Postcards with voting information were shared at COVID testing sites.
Across campus, two days for voter registration events were designed specifically to reach staff members. Individual campus units also got involved: In one example, the Department of Athletics worked with student-athletes to get 100 percent voter turnout among eligible members of their teams.
Over at Duke Health, a town hall presented voting information and assisted community members in registering to vote. In addition, many hospital staff participated in the VotER program where they wore a badge-backer with a QR code on it for patients and colleagues to scan with their phones to register to vote. And because hospitals have specific transportation issues, Duke Health organized shuttles from Duke Medicine Pavilion to Duke’s early voting site to make it easier for employees to vote.
During a pandemic where many staff are working remotely and only half of the undergraduate population is residing on campus, organization at this level makes a difference in voter turnout, said Mac McCorkle, a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy and co-director of Polis: Center for Politics, which worked closely with the students leading Duke Votes.
McCorkle said it’s impossible to know how successful voter turnout will be at Duke until Election Day, but under COVID conditions, setting an early voting record shows local voters were motivated.
McCorkle said the turnout also showcased “an incredible effort.” He credited the administration for coordinating different efforts and the students for “an impressive grassroots program.”
“There’s a huge wave of electoral turnout everywhere. This election is so different,” McCorkle said. “However, given COVID, with many employees and students not on campus, it’s very possible Duke would have missed the wave. If we had not put together the organized effort, we could have missed it.”