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Looking For Student Voters In North Carolina

It's not always easy to get from campus to the polls, especially at HBCUs

Welcome to The Battle For North Carolina, a series where we take you inside one of the most contentious states in 2016. Previously: Rallying until the bitter end.

Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton were trying to make sure that every one of their thousands of ecstatic supporters in the giant, echoing arena in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, were going to vote in the next 12 days. "Vote early. Vote right now. Leave here. Go vote. And don’t let anyone take that right away from you," the First Lady said at the event last Thursday at Wake Forest University. "I want you to remember that folks marched and protested for our right to vote. They endured beatings and jail time. They sacrificed their lives for this right. So I know you can get yourselves to the polls to exercise that right because, make no mistake about it, casting our vote is the ultimate way we go high when they go low. Voting is our high."

About 5 miles away, two orange tour buses were sitting empty behind the gym at Winston-Salem State University, a historically black school with about 5,000 students and a campus full of red-brick buildings. The buses, sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus and the WSSU political action committee, were supposed to be chauffeuring students to the polls to do exactly what Obama told them to: Vote early. Only 15 students showed up, per the bus drivers. About 100 yards away, outside the student center, other students were playing music, and those passing by paused to dance before heading to lunch or class. “Make sure you go vote," one of the DJs said as a song ended. He quickly added, "but don’t vote for Trump.” Still, no one headed to the buses, and the drivers were stuck looking at their phones for an hour.

WSSU used to have an early voting center right on campus; now, without the bus, it's a 25-minute walk to the closest one at Reynolds Park. Earlier this year, students went to a Forsyth County Board of Elections meeting to protest the removal of the on-campus center, which disappeared after claims of voter fraud — there were reports of professors giving students extra credit for voting. Unfortunately, it didn't work. According to North Carolina Board of Elections data, the early voting site now closest to WSSU this year is the least visited location in the county so far. During the first week of early voting this year, black turnout in North Carolina was down from 2012, as was turnout from young voters. Turnout among white voters or those over 65 is up. The decrease may be due to the drop in early voting locations during that first week, apathy over the election, or the fact that increased turnout in 2012 had a lot to do with the first black president of the United States being on the ballot, but regardless, it seems like black students aren't turning out in great numbers — at least not yet.

It's not always easy to vote at HBCUs across North Carolina, especially when students don't have cars or easy access to public transportation. North Carolina A&T, a historically black university in Greensboro, still has an early voting location, but it wasn't open the first week of voting this year — unlike in 2008 and 2012. To make matters even more confusing, the university is split into two different congressional districts, diluting students' voices by spreading them out between two representatives. In 2013, dozens of students at Elizabeth State University, a historically black school out on the eastern coast of North Carolina, were purged from the rolls because their voter registration address didn't match that of their parents.

Student voting difficulties aren't limited to HBCUs, either. It can be hard for students — who tend to tilt progressive — to vote on any college campus in North Carolina, which has a government that trends conservative at the moment. Early voting sites have been disappearing from student-heavy districts across the state this fall after lobbying from Republican officials, with counties arguing that they are trying to cut costs. Duke University used to have an early voting site on campus, but that was also removed this year. Turnout at the next nearest location has been low. Students at Appalachian State University fought to keep their on-campus early voting site in 2014. On the bright side, students no longer have to bring voter ID to the polls after the state's voting restrictions were invalidated this summer. During the primary election, many students across the state had to fill out provisional ballots because they didn't have a suitable photo ID.

These logistical frustrations are made worse by there being many student issues that could be affected by national and state races this year. Earlier this year, the North Carolina state legislature considered a bill that would have put a cap on tuition at three historically black universities and another school that mostly enrolls minority students — and which, subsequently, would have crippled their already shrinking budgets and student populations. Students and alumni fought back, and a few of the schools, including WSSU, were removed from the bill. But even without the proposed legislation, schools have been suffering; in 2015, two HBCUs were threatened with closure.

Mona Zahir, president of WSSU's Student Government Association, is most worried about state and local issues, and has had a front-row seat to many of the battles being fought here. She went to the state capitol to talk about the legislation that would have cut tuition at her school, and went over to the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem when the state's voting restrictions were being discussed. She has also been paying attention to the fallout from the transgender bathroom bill. "The federal stuff," she says, "takes awhile to trickle down." Add to these campus concerns many students' mounting debt, the Black Lives Matter protests in Charlotte, climate change, and the fact that Donald Trump had been in North Carolina a day before talking about "inner cities" in front of a mostly white audience again, and it's not surprising that students might just be exhausted by this election year. A few freshmen walking around the WSSU campus said that few people they knew were paying attention to the election — they had too much classwork to deal with to think about that.

The fact that neither political party has been stellar on race probably makes the election feel more distant at WSSU, too, especially now that Bernie Sanders, who came up over and over again in conversations with students, is no longer running. Later that Thursday, there was a panel on campus about race and the 2016 elections being held in a gallery featuring an art exhibit titled, "Do You See Me?" One student asked, "How do I approach this election as a black American?" He added that he didn't see how having Barack Obama, who had been president since he was in middle school, had made his life any better.

Zahir, a first-generation American, says that if students on campus do turn out, the GOP nominee will be mostly responsible. "Young people on campus are motivated by a bewilderment of Trump and how far he's come," she says. "Especially on HBCUs, which have seen his tokenization of the black community. They say, 'He can't be president.'"

Historically low turnout among young people and difficulties with turning them out due to extenuating circumstances doesn't mean that there aren't students excited about the election at WSSU — or that campaigns have given up trying to get them excited. Clinton has stopped by at least a dozen historically black colleges and universities this election cycle, where she often discusses her Bernie-inspired college plan and desire to divert additional federal funds to HBCUs.

On one of the orange tour buses taking students back from the Clinton rally in Winston-Salem, students peered out the window at the Secret Service vehicles and the campaign bus directly ahead, wondering if Michelle Obama might be inside. Twenty-year-old Deionte Watts was one of those students obsessed with the election despite the depressing nature of it all. He has been taking advantage of all the attention North Carolina has been getting from candidates all year. He went to see Bernie Sanders, his candidate of choice, at an event during the primary. He went to see Trump, which was "one of the weirdest things in [his] life," too. He added, "No one hit me or anything, but it scared me for us as a country." Watts also did voter registration drives on campus with an organization he's part of, Black Men for Change, this year. After Thursday's rally, Watts just hopes everyone he knows votes. "More people need to get out, though," he said. "If Trump wins, there's going to be a nuclear war, and I'm not prepared for that."