Apr 28, 2009
Exercising our civic Duty
by Daniel Martinez
On Tuesday, Nov. 4, students at Liberty University woke up with an important task on the day’s agenda. There were no classes, labs or seminars, but nearly half the on-campus population woke up that morning with their civic duty on the brain: they had to go vote.
Students from Florida, Maryland, Texas, Delaware, Ohio and nearly every other state in the Union were able to forego the tedious use of absentee ballots in the weeks prior thanks to a voter registration drive that had allowed them to name their dorms as their current places of residence. Thus, more than 4,000 Liberty students voted in the city of Lynchburg on Nov. 4.
“Liberty University is distinctively different from many schools,” said Wendell Walker, a 1984 graduate of Liberty University and current Vice Chairman of the Lynchburg Republican City Committee. “One of the big reasons is the University’s push for students to have an active voice in government.”
While other schools have had similar voter registration campaigns, Larry Provost, the director of commuter affairs at Liberty, believes this drive garnered much more attention because of the Christian voice it sounds. The mission to actively sound that voice began with the school’s founder, the late Dr. Jerry Falwell.
“He always encouraged people to get involved,” Walker said of the late Dr. Falwell.
And Liberty students did get involved, to the point that the 4,200 students who registered to vote in Lynchburg became a part of a glaring figure: in the presidential election of 2008, Senator John McCain received 17,638 votes in Lynchburg, Va. Barack Obama received 16,269 votes, just over a thousand fewer.
Walker described sites in Lynchburg where people waited in line for hours to vote, some of them leaving without casting their votes because of the sheer length of the lines. He attributed this to the volume of students participating, a significant new factor in the city’s voter turnout.
“Young people are beginning to get involved in government because they see how it affects them,” he said.
“It sends a clear message,” City Council member T. Scott Garrett said, “that all candidates for public office need to be mindful of these tenets.”
“Politicians pay attention to that sort of thing,” Lee Beaumont, Liberty’s director of auxiliary services, said. “We (members of the Liberty community) have a lot of sway.”
While many young people associate elections with the office of president, there is much more to be voted on.
“The city typically tends to go Democrat,” Walker said.
Patricia Bower of the Lynchburg City General Registrar pointed out Democratic candidates for governor who won the city vote in 2001 and 2005 by margins of 1,200 and 600 votes, respectively.
Even beyond titles such as president, governor, or mayor, Liberty students have the ability to vote on issues that directly impact them. Beaumont pointed to meal taxes, bed taxes, and property taxes, which are nearly double in the city what they are in the rest of the county that all affect students, as well as laws that require certain projects around the campus, thereby snagging the school’s money before it can be spent on academics or things that would make time on campus more enjoyable for students.
Ultimately, the money that students pay in tuition, fees, and funds can often be traced back to requirements imposed by City council to build certain roads, traffic signals, turning lanes, crosswalks, and even parking spaces, some of which are questionable needs. When money must be spent on such projects, it comes from tuition paid by students themselves.
“Liberty students deserve the same level of service as any other citizen … the facts are that 72.54 percent of the city’s sales tax revenue comes from sales taxes paid in Ward III by Liberty University staff and students and other citizens while shopping and dining in the Wards Road area,” Roy Jones, director of development for Liberty University, said.
Jones said that Liberty leaders had more than just the presidential election in mind when encouraging students to vote last fall.
“A lot of people mistakenly thought the Chancellor was just trying to help the Republican Party in 2008, but the fact is Mr. Falwell is trying to empower students and the Liberty employees and faculty to start standing up for our rights and responsibilities in this community. Wards Road improvements must be vastly expanded to support the university’s continued growth,” he said.
“You have to get approval by the city to do anything,” Beaumont said. “For building projects, you need building permits, zoning licenses; when you disturb land, you have both city and state permits you need to pull, and when you submit a plan for these projects, there’s a Technical Review Committee (TRC) that you have to pay so they review your plan and see if they’ll let you do something or other.”
Tuition rises as the cost of running the university rises, and the city’s decisions about what the school does and does not need is what bumps up that cost of running the university. According to Beaumont, Liberty is required to have a certain amount of parking spaces on campus, though there are regularly 1,000 empty spaces around the school each day. The campus was required to have a turning lane on the road by Doc’s Diner, to build the perimeter road, and to add certain sidewalks. Liberty is even required to plant a certain amount of trees and shrubs around the campus.
Even the new Barnes & Noble bookstore that opened on Saturday, April 18, has restrictions. “We need a roundabout in front of it,” Beaumont said, “a traffic circle, in other words. It will take a few months to build.”
“City council voted to keep property tax rates the same. They could have lowered them. If it went down, it would give us more money to do other things. I’d rather spend $100,000 on something that would benefit the students rather than on a traffic study (about Ward’s Road),” Beaumont said.
The 2008 presidential election is in the past, but those 4,200 Lynchburg city votes aren’t going to evaporate. There are many issues to which those voters can lend their attention, and people will listen, because, as Beaumont said, Liberty is the largest “employer, tourism engine, and economic engine” in the city.
“The local registrar is considering giving Liberty its own (voting) precinct,” Walker said. A voting precinct, he said, holds about 4,000 votes, but that number was already surpassed by the results of the voter drive in the 2008 election, and, given the current state of the school’s growth, Walker said it is almost guaranteed that a new precinct will be created. With its own precinct, Liberty would have more power to vote people and values into office that could alter the city and the state.
“There’s a lot of people there (at Liberty) who can affect the city and the world,” Walker said.
Provost said part of the intention of the voter registration drive was to get students voting so that their Christian values would stand up. He called it “becoming a complete citizen for the Kingdom.”
“Liberty voters were the reason the city has now shifted to Republican hands,” Jeff Helgeson, a councilman and 1988 Liberty graduate, said.
“It is important for those running for political office to recognize that you must listen to and represent the values and views of the Liberty voter,” Helgeson, said.
“Many on council and state government had a free pass for far too long due to a bloc of more liberal voters. I am so delighted to see this shift as I have represented these same conservative views for my five years on council.” Helgeson is running in the June 9 Republican primary for the House of Delegates.
“Some state legislators even believe that the Lynchburg House of Delegates race this Fall could decide whether the Virginia House of Delegates is controlled by the Republicans or the Democrats in 2010, the year that the House will re-draw all the boundaries of all the election districts in the state. The party in control in 2010 will draw those boundaries to give itself a clear advantage in all elections over the next 10 years. Liberty students are uniquely positioned to decide the winner of that race in the fall and, indirectly, the direction of Virginia politics over the next decade,” said Chancellor and President Jerry Falwell, Jr.