By Andrew Tan-Delli Cicchi
Home for Jay Zussman is New York, though in his third year as an undergraduate at Duke, Durham is starting to feel more like home too. After arriving back early Tuesday morning from fall break, Zussman frequented his usual haunts: Harris Teeter for groceries, then Mad Hatter Cafe to study. It was only three days later, on Friday, while scrolling through his Facebook feed that Zussman realized that the city had held municipal primary elections.
“I don’t think students had any idea of when the elections were,” Zussman said. “Nobody who I know went to vote in the primaries. Not a single person.”
Voter turnout for Durham’s municipal elections is generally low. Just 10 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the 2015 municipal general election. Citywide turnout rose to 13 percent for the October primary. More people also went to the polls in the precinct that includes Duke’s West and Central campuses, but Precinct 5 still recorded the lowest turnout in the county at 2 percent, or 143 votes.
Out of the city’s 56 voting precincts, Precinct 5, where Zussman lives, has historically recorded the lowest voter turnout in Durham municipal elections. In recent municipal general and primary election, turnout has averaged 1 percent of registered voters, illustrating a town-and-gown divide and raising questions about undergraduates’ engagement with city issues.
Are Duke students Durham residents?
Zussman explained that he feels an obligation to vote in New York because he believes he has a stake in his hometown’s political issues. But he said he is grappling with the concept of being both a Duke student and a Durham resident.
“I don’t know if Duke students routinely think about the fact that they live in Durham,” Zussman said. “When I’m on-campus, I definitely don’t. When I’m off-campus, I also don’t. Part of that is down to me living in [Berkshire Ninth Street Apartments] which is the epitome of the gentrification of Durham. I don’t even feel like I live in Durham there.”
Steve Schewel, a city councilman and Duke professor currently running to be Durham’s mayor, left Lynchburg, Virginia to attend Duke as an undergraduate. Schewel agreed that most Duke students do not feel as though Durham is their home.
“I think student turnout is low because there are relatively few Duke students who are invested in Durham,” Schewel said. “Some certainly are, but most don’t regard Durham as their home in the same way they regard where they came from as their home. They don’t see it as particularly salient in their life.”
In comparison to the campus-wide drive to increase voting in the 2016 presidential elections, student groups have been notably less vocal in promoting student participation in municipal elections. The city’s turnout rate for the presidential election was 68 percent, with 583 votes cast in Precinct 5. For senior Liz Brown, vice president for Durham and regional affairs, pushing students to vote in city elections in presented a different ethical dilemma.
“It’s not that Duke students shouldn’t vote in Durham elections,” Brown said. “But it’s more so that we shouldn’t just be making students vote because they are Duke students. I don’t think that the undergraduate student voice is the voice that needs to be heard in the city’s election.”
Many students are not well-informed of the election’s defining issues of gentrification, affordable housing, policing and poverty, which marginally impact students’ lives, Brown said. Though some students may consider themselves to be Durham citizens, Brown said there are others who consider themselves to be first and foremost Blue Devils.
Using Duke’s resources to push students to vote in an election which has a generally low citywide turnout would lead to students having a “weirdly loud voice,” she added.
Zussman said he was concerned about taking away from the representation of residents with more direct relationships with Durham’s issues. “I do wonder about what it would mean to take up space in an environment where people are fighting for their rights to live in places that Duke students will never live and never have interest in living,” he said.
Unique challenges for Precinct 5
Even as student engagement is a factor in voter turnout, the precinct’s turnout rate may in fact be skewed lower due to a disproportionately high number of registered voters who have not voted in any recent elections. According to Derek Bowens, the elections director at the Durham County Board of Elections, 3,143 of the precinct’s 8,074 registered voters have an inactive status.
Bowens said most of the inactive voters are probably students who have registered in Durham and then moved away after graduation. They cannot be removed from the registration rolls until they have been inactive for two federal election cycles, Bowens explained.
Without the inactive voters, the voter turnout would be 3 percent, still the lowest in the county. Another reason for low voter participation may be the precinct’s racial and socioeconomic diversity, which makes it difficult to develop effective strategies to encourage more residents to vote. In addition to the university campus, the precinct includes the Damar Court and Morreene Road public housing complexes and the Crest Street neighborhood, a predominantly African-American community with labor ties to the university.
“It is a very diverse precinct where it isn’t a one-size-fits-all when it comes to issues or strategies,” Natalie Murdock, Durham Democratic Party vice-chair for Precinct 5, said. “I think economic issues such as job creation are prevalent to people in public housing. But that means something very different for a student at Duke who is also interested in job creation.”
Murdock said selecting locations for election events has also been challenging, with residents unable to come to campus and students unwilling to go off campus.
“If you do something that’s convenient for Duke students, it’s more than likely not convenient for Morreene Road, Damar Court or Crest Street residents,” Murdock said.
That point is illustrated in the location of the precinct’s voting site at the W.I. Patterson Recreation Center, in the heart of the Crest Street community north of Duke Hospital. For the 2016 presidential elections, the university provided on-campus students with Uber discount codes to get to the polling site.
Murdock, however, said she had heard that the location “may not be the most accessible” for residents of public housing units.
Even as challenges remain, this year’s primary vote turnout represents a steady uptick from the 0.5 percent and 0.8 percent turnout of the previous two municipal primaries. Brown and Schewel are optimistic that, among students, the narrative of the university’s relationship with Durham is changing. The priority of student groups should be to educate interested students about the election race, Brown said.
For Schewel, the question of voting as a Duke student is rather simple.
“If you think to yourself that you’re not really a Durham resident and you don’t really care about Durham, then you shouldn’t vote,” Schewel said. “But if you’re committed to Durham and you think of yourself during your time here as a Durham resident in your four years here, then voting should be important.”