University of Texas students carry early voting momentum to the polls on Election Day

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As the bell tower rang in the two o’clock hour Tuesday afternoon, the Election Day energy on the University of Texas campus hit its stride as a growing line of nearly 100 students waiting to cast their vote in this year’s midterm and local election wrapped around the Flawn Academic Center.

Students heading to the polls, or just passing through to get to class, were greeted by dozens of stumpers handing out pamphlets or making last minute cases for their candidates and causes. Outside the student union, hundreds of election yard signs, planted in nearly every square inch of available soil, reflected the jam-packed ballot that awaited the young voters, and students could not make it very far without at least one person asking if they had voted.

The 18- to 25-year old demographic now makes up the largest voting block in Travis County, according to early voting numbers collected by the Travis County Clerk. During the early voting period, the Flawn Academic Center and the Perry-Castañeda Library—UT Austin’s only two polling stations—tallied over 23,500 submitted ballots.

Kassie Phebillo, a PhD student in communications and program coordinator for the nonpartisan campus organization TX Votes, said she believes the increase in student voters this election is the result of a years-long effort to encourage registration, coupled with a competitive congressional race.

“That combination is really powerful,” Phebillo said. “We definitely encourage students to vote all the way down ballot.”

While 89.4 percent of UT-Austin students are from Texas, many are not from Austin, and the local races can be confusing for voters, who may not realize voting straight-ticket does not include nonpartisan positions, such as mayor, said Andrew Herrera, president of the campus organization University Democrats.

“It’s definitely disenfranchising for a lot of people,” Herrera said. “There’s a knowledge gap.”

The organization, which has existed at UT since 1953, endorses local candidates and offers recommendations to students for how to vote on the local propositions. Herrera was handing out small fliers that students could take with them to the polling station.

Much of the local energy leading up to this year’s midterm election has revolved around the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso. Although as many “BETO” shirts as UT Austin gear could be seen on campus Tuesday, many students, such as Jacob Blackthorne, 21, said they were drawn to the polls not by a specific race.

“I’m just out here exercising my right to vote,” Blackthorne said. “I think it’s important and it’s our civic duty.”

Blackthorne’s friend, Dominic Shillace, 20, from San Francisco, said he felt many of his peers do not understand the significance of midterm elections.

“I think there is this idea that the president is the most powerful person in the country,” Shillace said. “But Congress is actually more powerful when it comes to policies, so it’s just as important to vote in the midterms.”

However, Blackthorne and Shillace, like many of the young voters in line Tuesday, admitted they did not know much about the local city races on the 2018 ballot, which includes mayor, city council, school board, local judges, a $925-million bond proposal and a question as to whether voters should be the last line of approval to comprehensive changes to Austin’s land development code.

This was extra motivation for some candidates visiting campus Tuesday to make their eleventh-hour push for the student vote. Incumbent District 9 Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo and one of her challengers, Danielle Skidmore, met with voters outside the Perry-Castañeda Library, as did Julie Oliver, the Democratic candidate for Congress in Texas’ 25th district. Justin Nelson, the Democratic challenger to incumbent Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, tried to introduce himself to as many people as he saw outside the Flawn Academic Center.

“Just out here stumping and making sure students are staying in line to vote,” Nelson said.

Some students, like Lauren Gonzalez, 18, from Corpus Christi, were more educated in the local races. Holding literature from both Tovo’s and Skidmore’s campaigns, Gonzalez said she attended rallies for mayoral and local congressional candidates and already knew who she would vote for in the City Council election.

Polls close at 7 p.m. To see live results as they come in, visit Community Impact’s election page.

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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