Professor’s Quick Work Leads to Voting Site at Duke

Concerned by low student turnout in May’s primary, a Duke professor of public policy worked this summer to make voting more convenient for the Duke community. As a result of the initiative led by Gunther Peck, the Fred W. Shaffer Associate Professor of History and Public Policy Studies, students, faculty and staff will be able to vote in the general election this fall without leaving campus.

The polling site in the Old Trinity Room in the West Union Building will open October 18 for early voting.

The site sets Duke on par with neighboring public universities such as N.C. Central University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and N.C. State University, which all had early voting sites for this year’s primary. Formerly, the nearest voting site for Duke students was on Corporation Street. Although the location is not far from East Campus, Peck believes the distance was enough to limit turnout of Duke students in the May primary.

“We all expected there would be a good turnout at Duke,” said Peck, who is involved with Durham for Obama. “But we had less than half the turnout of Central and 60 percent of Chapel Hill’s turnout.”

Durham County’s turnout for the Democratic primary was an impressive 52 percent, but Peck found that in Duke student precincts only 343 people aged 18 to 24 years old voted in the Democratic primary. That’s just 11 percent of more than 3,000 students locally registered as Democrats or independents. The May 6 election date—after finals for Duke—may have lowered turnout, but Peck points out that local universities with similar calendars had much higher turnout.

“Other people’s first reaction was that there was something wrong with the culture of Duke students: they’re entitled, they live in their own world, they don’t care about their communities. And I thought, that doesn’t fit the students I teach,” Peck said. So what did Duke lack that its neighbors had?  Its own early voting site, Peck realized—and he immediately set out to change that.

County Board of Elections Chair Mike Ashe was skeptical when Peck presented his eleventh-hour proposal in July, but Provost Peter Lange and Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III strongly supported the idea. In a meeting involving Ashe and University administrators, “Trask really came through,” said Peck, noting that Trask suggested using the Old Trinity Room when the Bryan Center did not meet site requirements.

Because North Carolina’s races are “exceptionally close up and down the ticket this year,” Peck believes every vote in the county will truly count in November. “It was very satisfying to achieve this, especially because it was so late in the season,” Peck said. He also hopes the Duke voting site will boost turnout among Duke’s 18,000 employees.

“Of course the youth vote is hugely important this year, so we’re telling all our students about the early voting site,” said Alma Blount, director of Duke’s Hart Leadership Program, who has done research about the civic engagement of American youth. “It’s our good fortune that Gunther made this happen,” she added.