Universities’ voter turnout increases


Illustration by Emily Brinkman.

Out of an estimated 48,498 voters registered in Forrest County, 16,474 made it to the polls according to data provided by election commissioner of district one Gentry Mordica. However, many people believe this number is not indicative of the importance of voting and voter turnout.

The executive director of Mississippi Votes, a nonprofit organization that seeks to boost civil engagement, Arekia Bennett said she is pleased to see an increase of voting across campuses in Mississippi. 

“Nationally, millennials outperformed baby boomers during the midterm election last year, and in Mississippi, we had a really historical turnout among that electorate,” Bennett said. “Part of that is because we engaged young people directly.”

Bennett said in universities like Jackson State, the organization saw a dramatic increase as almost 351% in voter turnout between 2014 to 2018.

Forrest County Election Commissioner Sue Polk said it is important for college students to go out and vote. However, she said students should vote in their home counties instead of their college counties unless they plan to stay in Hattiesburg after graduation.

“They have those drives at USM—and all colleges—to get the students to vote because they can’t go back, but they can if they vote absentee,” Polk said. “They hold the drives, and after they register, maybe three-fourths of them don’t even vote.”

Polk said she expects a good voter turnout for the Nov. 5 election because of the competitive governor’s race and local sheriff’s race.

Polk said some people do not find local elections as important.

“This election is never as large as the presidential election,” Polk said. “In my 22 years [as an election commissioner], I’ve never understood it. Your state and your local officials can do more for you as an individual in the state of Mississippi as your president can.”

In the 2018 midterm election, out of the 45,784 registered voters of Forrest County, 23,176, just over 50% of voters, participated in the election. When asked how this number stacks up to neighboring counties, Polk said that she has never compared Forrest County to other counties like Madison, Hinds or Harrison because the bigger cities of Jackson and Biloxi are there.

“I’ve never compared Hattiesburg to—we’ll say–cities like Jackson, Greenwood, Greenville or Tupelo,” Polk said. “The coast is much larger than us, and Jackson is much larger than us, so I’ve never compared our city to another.”

According to Bennett, students need to get involved with local politics specifically because that is where people’s voices are better heard.

“It is not just about performing on Election Day. We know that it is about cultivating an environment where folks are talking about these policies that shape our lives,” Bennett said. “Two or three votes can change one election. I believe that more people are engaged because they believe wholeheartedly that their voices matter.”

Southern Miss alumnus and millennial fellow for MS Votes Jack Hoda, who is a first-year master’s of public administration student at the University of North Carolina, agreed with Bennett that local politics are important, and also said millennials are becoming more interested in issues that affect them, which has led to a rise in voter turnout for the age block.

“There are definitely movements happening in our generation that we haven’t seen in a long time,” Hoda said. “People are really passionate about the issues that are affecting them. People are really passionate about the current political landscape.”