Political Involvement at UVA

University of Virginia Students

By Kathryn Owen

By Kathryn Owen
Unigo Campus Rep at University of Virginia
October 20, 2008

The presidential election has had an obvious effect on students across the country, and University of Virginia students are no exception.  As a politically balanced campus, there is a diverse range of opportunities for students to get involved.

Student groups dedicated to specific issues with political affiliations have been working in various ways to raise awareness for their causes.  These groups include the Minority Rights Coalition and Hoos for Life, U.Va.’s pro-life student group.

(Since the school mascot is the Wahoo, as well as the Cavalier, many student organizations use the term “Hoo” is their names.  Wahoo comes from the student custom of yelling “wah-hoo-wah” at sporting events.)

The Minority Rights Coalition is an organization comprised of other student groups such as the Black Student Alliance and the Queer Student Union.  It is hosting an event this Thursday titled “Minorities in American Political Parties” to raise awareness about how the two-party system represents minority groups’ concerns.

Hoos for Life, HFL for short, is a smaller group made up of students concerned with raising awareness about the right to life, specifically in opposition to abortion.  HFL president Elyse Smith, a third year Foreign Affairs major, stated that leading up to the election, “HFL is trying to inform people of both candidates’ positions on abortion and life issues to make well-informed decisions on November 4th.”

HFL is distributing literature within the U.Va. community as well as at local churches that outlines the candidates’ positions, and the group holds weekly discussion meetings.  When Michelle Obama visited the University last semester to encourage women to register to vote, Smith and others held a protest to argue that the right to life precedes the right to vote.

While the pro-life issue has not been a prominent one in this election, a few students consider it a deciding issue.  Smith observed that the general attitude of students ranges from “apathy to outright intolerance.”  Her goal is to make the issue something that students consider more deeply, which, according to her, has not been easy. 

Students have gotten involved in ways outside of student groups as well.  The Obama campaign has set up an office on the Corner, a popular area close to Grounds, and many students have eagerly volunteered.

Students volunteering for the Obama campaign cited feeling particularly motivated by the groundbreaking nature of Obama’s candidacy as well as the status of Virginia as a swing state. 

One of the major projects of the Obama campaign office was voter registration, with the goal of registering 4,000 new voters in Charlottesville.  The office is currently in the Get Out the Vote stage of the campaign, which involves going door-to-door to encourage registered Democrats or people who have voted Democrat in the past to vote for the Democratic candidates on election day.

University Democrats has worked with the Obama campaign to transform volunteering from what could be a dull task into a social activity.  A phone banking session during the evening at the Obama office with a group of friends includes free pizza.  After canvassing neighborhoods in small groups for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, volunteers gather for a party.

 The reactions student volunteers have received from the community have been mostly positive, with many people enthusiastically pledging their support.  Only once in a while do they receive negative or discouraging feedback.

Asked about how the presidential election has affected the University, Deputy Director of Communications at the U.Va. Center for Politics and recent graduate Daniel Keyserling said, “Students are interested and engaged in an unprecedented way, and in a way I haven’t seen before.”

He went on to explain that many people in the older generation are surprised and encouraged by the exploding youth involvement, and that the youth vote will constitute a significant, if not deciding, part of the electorate.  The polls currently show that Virginia, which hasn’t voted Democratic since 1964, is leaning towards Obama, which is due largely to the growth of Northern Virginia, a more liberal area, and voter registration efforts.

The Center of Politics has held voter registration drives in the summer and fall to encourage maximum voter registration.  It also acts as an informational resource for students and releases a weekly publication on Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball Web site, written by popular Politics professor Larry Sabato, which seeks to provide a distilled analysis of political commentary.

Sabato founded the Center for Politics in 1998 in order to improve civic education and participation.   The Center quotes U.Va.’s founder Thomas Jefferson in its mission statement: “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.”

Many of the opportunities for student participation in the upcoming election share the same goal and seek to inform, specifically in ways that suit student interests.