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Liberty voters may be force in local elections

Liberty voters may be force in local elections

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Newly registered Liberty University students turned out in force Election Day, tipping the city’s electoral scales and trig-gering speculation about the influence this nascent voting bloc may wield in the future.

The LU Factor
- Liberty University has registered 4,200 new voters, a number that has the power to affect the outcome of future City Council elections.
- In 2010, the city’s three at-large seats will be up for grabs. Each of the current office holders — identified below along with their ballot count in the last election — say they have not yet considered any re-election plans.

At-Large Election Results, 2006
Councilman Scott Garrett 4,771
Mayor Joan Foster 4,648
Vice Mayor Bert Dodson 4,436

With the state looking toward the governor’s race in 2009 and three at-large City Council seats up for grabs in 2010, some are now wondering: Is the LU factor here to stay?

The yet-to-be-seen answer to that relies heavily on how students respond to the less flashy state and local races.

LU Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. acknowledges it may “take more education” to pique student interest, particularly in lo-cal contests.

“Local issues are not simple, conservative values, Democrat vs. Republican things,” Falwell said, describing them as “more technical” in nature.

At the same time, the decisions made at City Hall do affect campus life, he added, and the university plans to continue urging students to exercise their right to vote.

After netting 4,200 voters in an unprecedented campus registration drive, LU has shown the sheer numbers to sway at least local elections — a situation not all residents welcome.

“I know I’ve been approached by people in the community who feel very upset by it,” said Mayor Joan Foster, who was elected to her current term with 4,648 votes.

“The jury’s still out for me,” she said. “I want to think about it some more. … I wish I had a crystal ball and could see what will happen.”

There are concerns in some quarters about the overwhelmingly conservative LU students and the possibility they could alter the balance of power on council and change the course of the city.

Councilman Jeff Helgeson, a LU alum as well as the school’s ward representative, said the young voters could “abso-lutely” make an impact.

“The ideology I have pushed for and stood for all these years is for limited government and lower taxation,” said Hel-geson, a Republican who currently finds himself in the minority faction of council.

“I think many students over there believe in the same things, and I would hope they would vote for limited government and greater freedom,” he said.

Uncertainty about whether those students will actually show up to vote abounds, though. Can student voters be drawn into local issues? Will the timing of the council elections — overlapping as they do with the end of the academic year — negatively affect turnout?

And just how many student voters will there be in 2010? No longer galvanized by a historic presidential race or the op-portunity to vote in a battleground state, it’s possible LU’s voter registration numbers could simply fall off.

Vice Mayor Bert Dodson, elected to his most recent term with 4,436 votes, said he’s heard the same concerns about the future of local elections, but for his part brushed off any question on the subject.

“Everybody speculates, but we’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “… At the local level, we don’t have the same social is-sues that drive people to the polls. We don’t deal with same-sex marriage, abortion — those things that strike a chord with people.”

Falwell himself painted a less dramatic picture of what might result from LU’s addition to the voter rolls.

“The changes you see won’t necessarily, I don’t think, be new faces in city government,” he said. “I think it’s the priori-ties of lawmakers that will change because LU students are now part of the constituency.”

Last week, Falwell told students the school could “never be considered a second-class citizen” again now that its com-munity has a voice at the polls.

He anticipated their newfound voting power would result in greater attention for school concerns and interests, but added there were already “good people” in city government.

LU plans to hold candidate forums during future local elections as part of its efforts to engage student voters.

Councilman Helgeson — who plans to inquire about opening a new polling precinct in his ward due to the boom in the electorate — said too little attention has been paid to the Liberty University area in the past, specifically Wards Road.

He compared it to the city’s downtown, the target of a multi-million dollar revitalization effort.

“Why is it so important, that little half square mile? Why are we putting so many resources there?” asked Helgeson, an outspoken critic of the downtown spending. “Look at where a lot of our tax revenue is coming from, from out on the Wards Road area. That’s where a lot of our economic development is. That’s where a lot of our tax revenue is.”

Mayor Foster, asked about the concerns swirling around City Council’s future, said one positive result of the angst could be higher turnout in local elections, which typically see abysmal participation.

“Here might be the silver lining if people have that clout they’re thinking about,” she said. “Maybe more people will get out and vote. We have very low turnout in our local elections, and that’s never made any sense to me.”

“My answer to that is maybe more people need to get out and vote, if they’re worried about that.”

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