Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. had ambitious plans for the November elections: register enough voters at the school to ensure that Virginia remained a “red state.”
In the end, it didn’t work out. For the first time since 1964, Virginia backed a Democrat in the presidential race. But Falwell’s effort put 4,200 new voters on the local election rolls, enough, analysts say, to affect many municipal and state elections.
The influence of LU students is already being felt. Although Barack Obama carried Virginia, he lost Lynchburg by about 1,300 votes. Analysts say this was due largely to a lopsided vote in favor of John McCain at a precinct where many Liberty students cast their ballots. McCain got 3,000 votes at the precinct, compared to 639 for Obama.
In light of those results, some are wondering how students at the large fundamentalist university might affect local races.
“I think without them, Obama would have carried the city,” Falwell told a Lynchburg ABC affiliate. “And I think that’s a clear indication of how much influence these student voters will have in future elections.”
Falwell added that he plans to ask local candidates to begin meeting with students at Liberty.
But it’s far from clear that LU students will continue to vote. A change in state election law allowed students to register locally, and the national election this year captured an unprecedented level of interest among young people. Local races, by contrast, tend to deal with less flashy issues, focusing on more mundane concerns like zoning, school taxes and local government services.
“At the local level, we don’t have the same social issues that drive people to the polls,” Lynchburg Vice Mayor Bert Dodson told the Lynchburg News & Advance. “We don’t deal with same-sex marriage, abortion – those things that strike a chord with people.”
Nevertheless, some local politicians are already angling for the Liberty vote. Councilman Jeff Helgeson, a Liberty alumnus, said the students could affect the character of local politics.
“The ideology I have pushed for and stood for all these years is for limited government and lower taxation,” Helgeson said. “I think many students over there believe in the same things, and I would hope they would vote for limited government and greater freedom.”
Three at-large city council seats will be up for grabs in 2010. None of the three city officials who hold the positions now was elected with more than 5,000 votes, meaning Liberty students could easily affect outcomes.