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In today's polarized political climate, it's rare that any measure gets public bipartisan support. But I thought the University of Arkansas Associated Student Government's proposal to establish an on-campus early voting center would be uncontroversial and easily approved: The university's chapters of the College Republicans and Young Democrats both had a hand in drafting the proposal and threw their support behind it. So, along with thousands of other faculty, staff and students, I was surprised and disappointed when the Washington County Election Commission voted Aug. 19 to turn it down. (The 2-1 vote fell along party lines, with Republican Commissioners Renee Oelschlaeger and Bill Ackerman voting against the measure and Democratic Commissioner Max Deitchler supporting it.)
Oelschlaeger explained the commission felt the proposal didn't adequately explain the need for a new polling station, as six stations are already located within a mile of the university. This is true, but it misses the spirit of the measure, which wasn't trying to address disenfranchisement, but promote engagement — something that is badly needed in Fayetteville and around the country.
I suspect for many traditional students at UA-Fayetteville, the world outside of campus and Dickson Street might as well not exist. Life consists of going to class, possibly working a part-time job and then hanging out with friends. Yes, students enjoy Fayetteville's beautiful green spaces, growing number of bike lanes and walkability projects, programs at the Walton Arts Center, etc. But most don't actively think about the civic life behind all this development as a process that needs their votes, their involvement and their input (despite active solicitations for such from our planning committees).
Many people remain detached from local politics until they become part of the middle-aged, landed gentry. On the other hand, when they're young and establishing themselves, they complain that there's no one in government who represents the interests of the politically unentrenched. The early voting center proposal presented an opportunity to help break this cycle of disengagement through outreach. This was a chance to advertise to the student body what our city officials are doing to Keep Fayetteville Funky and make it a great place to stay after one graduates.
For nontraditional students, faculty and staff, the convenience would be a nice amenity. Yes, the 5,000 of us who work at the university can go off-campus to vote — but we're already here on campus, and we all have families or other responsibilities to attend to. Having a voting center right by a bus stop could save the thousands who pass through the campus 30 minutes to an hour out of a busy day.
There is also the fact that many of our polling places are churches. It would be nice to have a secular polling station on campus. I am not accusing any particular church of impropriety or failing to keep the premises free of political advertising as required by law. But students and staff who aren't of that particular faith might feel a governmental building is more neutral ground (and the campus is much closer than the county clerk's office). Despite the fact that the Associated Student Government offered to pay the estimated $6,000 to $7,000 required to establish a new voting center, Commissioner Ackerman said he was leery of its potential fiscal impact. However, the proposal's supporters always emphasized its experimental nature. We don't really know if the projected 81 percent of the 27,000 students at the university would actually turn out and vote if the proposal was implemented — but we could find out. This is a revocable decision that would have provided invaluable data on how a polling center at the state's flagship university affects student voter engagement.
The proposal for an early voting center wasn't simply about improving the logistics of voting. It was about civic education and outreach. I hope that despite the setback, the ASG will develop the outreach rung of the proposal and bring it back before the commission next year. If more students were at least passingly aware of our local politics, they might prepare to engage more deeply as they decide to become permanent residents of our community. At the Aug. 19 meeting, Commissioner Oelschlaeger made the remark that "democracy is not convenient always." Perhaps — but that doesn't make inconvenience a virtue worthy of preservation.
Ebony Buckley is an employee at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
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