LYNCHBURG, Va. (BP)–If any Liberty University students wondered if their vote could make a difference on Election Day, they now know the answer.
With on-campus residents voting in a general election only for the second time following a change in state election law last year, students at the evangelical school helped swing the race for the Virginia House of Delegates’ 23rd District — and did so in dramatic fashion.
Democratic incumbent Shannon Valentine led Republican Scott Garrett by about 1,400 votes for much of Election Night in a race that both sides knew could come down to the wire. It appeared Valentine, the favorite, could be headed for a close win, but then the final precinct — where Liberty students voted — reported its numbers. Garrett carried that precinct by a margin of 1,600 votes (1,964 votes to 324), giving him a narrow 200-vote win (10,800 to 10,600). Valentine could have requested a recount but conceded.
Jerry Falwell Jr., chancellor of the school, estimates that 1,800 on-campus students voted. Liberty officials cancelled classes and encouraged students to go vote, and the school even provided free busses to the precinct from 6:50 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
The ballot had prominent races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, but the Lynchburg-area media spotlighted the Liberty students. The Lynchburg News & Advance headline said: “LU students helped deliver election.” It is not known how many off-campus students voted, but the last time Valentine ran, on-campus students couldn’t vote.
“It’s just a great lesson for our students on the importance of representative democracy and the importance of participating, because it affects their pocketbook directly — especially in an election like Tuesday, where the students’ voting actually swung the election in the other direction,” Falwell told Baptist Press. “It really hit home the power we all have as voters. It’s a lifelong lesson for them that I think they’ll never forget.”
Until last year, on-campus Liberty students could not vote, which had a significant impact, being that about 60 percent of the university’s students lived in dorms. Prior to the law change, local registrars in each college town made the decision as to the on-campus voting rule.
The students’ sway on the local election upset some citizens, who said they shouldn’t be able to vote because they live in Lynchburg for only a few years. Falwell, though, is unapologetic.
“For many years there were 23 college towns in the state of Virginia and only six did not allow dorm students to votes,” Falwell said. “We happened to be in one of those six. But the Obama campaign and the ACLU fought last year to change those rules so that all dorm students could vote where they went to school. We finally were able to register dorm students, and it’s been making a huge difference for Liberty because we were sort of the stepchild here locally. We were taxed heavily but not represented. Our students were hit with the highest taxes of any college town around. The school is required to build public roads for the city. Now, it’s all changed.”
Liberty called off classes because, unlike other schools in the state, it did not have its own precinct.
“The only way that it was practical for students to get to the polls was to ride buses and to cancel classes,” Falwell said. “At least we can vote now, but hopefully the next step will be that we’re treated like all the other colleges in the state and get our own precinct.”
According to a Liberty news release, the school set a goal of registering 1,500 new voters this year, but surpassed that at 1,729.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.