HARRISONBURG — The Harrisonburg Electoral Board has input from the Voter Registrar on the merit of a new precinct for James Madison University students. But members are not ready to make a recommendation to City Council.
On Wednesday, the board voted to meet with city officials and JMU representatives by its July meeting about creating a precinct either exclusively for on-campus students or one that also encompasses surrounding neighborhoods.
The next meeting date has not been set, board member Sandra Price-Stroble said.
Last month, City Council asked the board to make a recommendation on the proposal, but the elections panel decided to wait until it could talk with more stakeholders.
“One of the things that has bothered me from the very beginning with this is the lack of actual involvement by the university,” board Chairman Greg Coffman said.
He said that he did not consider the board’s communication with student Josh Humphries and the JMU Student Government Association as university involvement.
Humphries originally submitted the request on behalf of SGA in March, and the board has treated the issue as an ongoing agenda item.
In a report to the board Wednesday, Registrar Deborah Logan said a new precinct for on-campus students is not justified given historically low student-voter turnout and the current equity of Harrisonburg’s seven precincts for all city voters.
JMU students living on campus can register to vote in the Spotswood precinct, which is geographically the smallest in the city.
“Basically, you’re talking about my very smallest precinct and splitting it in half,” Logan said.
Each of the seven precincts saw voter turnout of 1,800 to 2,300 during the 2012 presidential election and between 800 and 1,100 for the 2014 gubernatorial election. Precincts are designed for a maximum of 5,000 voters, and in last year’s election, only 173 of 2,240 voters registered on JMU’s campus went to the polls, Logan said.
She added that those registered on campus are mostly inactive because they have since moved off campus and not updated their information.
Humphries cited accessibility as the reason to establish an on-campus polling place for students, but Logan said Wednesday that the distance from JMU to Spotswood Elementary School is less than a mile.
By comparison, she said, in the other precincts, voters must travel as far as 1.2 to three miles.
On-campus students at Eastern Mennonite University and residents of Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community, for example, both travel farther to vote in Harrisonburg than JMU students.
“I’m just trying to look at all citizens the same,” Logan said. “Take away where they are, take away what they do, all citizens have equal access to getting to the polling places.”
She asked that instead of a new precinct, the city make a greater investment in educating students on campus about their voting options, including absentee ballots.
In a March 31 letter to the Electoral Board from Maggie Burkhart Evans, executive assistant to JMU President Jonathan Alger, the administration gives its support for the creation an on-campus precinct for students.
“Understanding that expenses may be incurred in this process, James Madison University is willing to partner with the City to explore a plan for sharing potential costs,” the letter says.
Logan told the board that it would cost approximately $20,000 in startup costs and about $4,000 annually to establish a new voting precinct.
“Should the measure pass City Council, the administration will gladly meet with members of the Electoral Board and City staff to discuss plans for an on-campus voting location,” Burkhart Evans writes.
Humphries, 21, said after the board’s meeting Wednesday that he was pleased with the progress on the issue.
“As far as the numbers go, I mean … they could be better,” he said of the student turnout. “But I think we need to be deciding that if we’re getting a precinct on campus, I believe that that would inherently turn out more students to vote.”