CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.–Bret Curtis, a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia, watched as recent events catapulted his beloved university into the national spotlight. There was the abduction and murder of a student, a high-profile magazine article reporting on false rape allegations and, most recently, a violent march of racist extremists.
“We face obstacles all year round,” Curtis, the head of University Democrats, told his team who was holed up a room looking out on The Lawn. “We can’t let rain stop us now.”
After months of campaigning, University of Virginia students headed to the polls on Tuesday to cast their votes for governor and various other state government positions. The weeks leading up to the election were in the aftermath of the deadly Aug. 11 demonstration when White supremacists and alt-right groups marched on campus and one of them drove into a group of counter-protesters killing a young woman.
According to members of the UVA community, these recent events have impacted activism on campus and have fueled student-led, bipartisan efforts that have resulted in thousands of new voter registrations.
On the night before the election, University Democrats phone-banked until eight in the evening. The organization also spent the last weekend knocking on doors in contested areas.
Elizabeth Parker, a fourth-year student and the campaign chair for University Democrats, said a team of 11 students knocked on over 1500 doors on Friday. Saturday was spent doing phone and email outreach. On Sunday, the Democrats hosted a visit from Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee.
“It’s easy to fall in love with a presidential campaign,” Parker said, “but by being invested in a gubernatorial [campaign] and these statehouse races, I think I’ve learned a lot about how to be effective in a campaign.”
At a time when some have suggested that young people have disengaged from the political process, the buzz on Election Day at UVA suggest otherwise. For the past few months, the University Democrats have been focusing on early registration and absentee voting.
The White supremacist rally in Charlottesville several months ago heightened the political activism surrounding this election.
“Our students and our community continue to hurt and continue to grieve over what happened in August,” Curtis said. “UVA students are getting to see the very terrible effects of racism, misogyny, homophobia and sexism.”
The incident “definitely got me fired up about this election,” Parker added. “Seeing the response of our governor who’s a Democrat juxtaposed with [President] Trump, it made me want to elect a Democrat even more.”
Curtis continued: “If students want to see institutional change, they need to elect a governor who holds those values,” he said, adding that following the August rally, the university’s Board of Visitors appointed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe voted to remove plaques commemorating Confederate soldiers on campus
By the end of the evening, Curtis and Parker’s efforts proved to help Ralph Northam, who solidly defeated Ed Gillespie and will go on to succeed Gov. Terry McAuliffe as governor.
Despite the loss, the College Republicans spent the day pushing students to the polls.
“Being conservative on a college campus is not the easiest thing in the world,” said Adam Kimelman, chair of the College Republicans. “That’s been one of our primary challenges.”
Kimelman said that College Republican members were harassed while door-knocking and that he was called a Nazi on Monday morning while passing out Gillespie fliers. According to Kimelman, Gillespie—a Republican strategist—has come out strongly against these extremist groups.
“He said there is no moral equivalency between White supremacists and White supremacy,” Kimelan said. “He’s been very clear about it.”
Tanner Hirschfeld, a member of the College Republicans, strongly disavowed any connection to the White supremacist groups and said that Republicans are unfairly associated with hateful rhetoric espoused by hate groups.
“I don’t know a single Republican that supports them,” he said. “I think people try to hijack our party.”
NextGen America, a political nonprofit, assigned members to stand in high-traffic areas to answer questions about polling locations. Griffin Asnis, a student fellow at NextGen, said the violent rally in Charlottesville stirred political activism on campus.
“People who definitely weren’t as active as before want to come out,” he said. “I think we have a pretty healthy political activity.” Earlier in the day, he stood outside a campus food court with a poster, directing students to the shuttles to polling locations provided by the university.
On the opposite end of campus, student council members stood under a canopy that protected them from the rain, beside a loading zone where volunteers from the Charlottesville community provided rides for students to various polling places. The student council made arrangements with Car2Vote, a nonpartisan company that provides transportation to voters. Sydney Bradley, a student council member volunteering at the pick-up point, emphasized the importance of university students participating in politics.
“The youth vote makes such a difference,” she said. “It can make a difference with a couple hundred votes, especially in a close race like today.” She added that the events in August have brought the student community together and enlivened political activism on campus.
Sean Epstein, a second-year statistics major, voted using an absentee ballot, and on election day he was working at a booth for a nonpolitical student organization. He said he has always been engaged in politics and that the events in August have affected the way he sees politics.
“It hasn’t made me more politically active,” he said, “but it’s made me more politically aware.”