ROANOKE, Virginia (AP) – The chancellor of Liberty University has an ambitious plan to get the 10,500 students at the evangelical Christian college registered to vote in Virginia, a swing state that could be crucial to victory in the U.S. presidential election.
The key, according to Jerry Falwell Jr., is to register Liberty students in Lynchburg, home to the conservative college his late father founded in 1971, and the overwhelming majority – if not all – of the students are likely to vote for Republican John McCain.
“If they register here, they’re more likely to vote,” said Falwell, who supports McCain.
Two-thirds of Liberty students on campus are from out of state, according to the College Board. College students historically vote in small numbers, and some observers point to the hassles of voting absentee as one of the reasons.
To make sure students don’t have any excuses for not voting, Falwell has canceled classes on Election Day and has arranged for city buses to take students to the polls. Liberty already pays the city to allow students to ride its buses at no charge.
Falwell’s students could form an important block of voters in Virginia, widely seen as a tossup between McCain and Democratic candidate Barack Obama.
Many Virginia elections are decided by margins smaller than Liberty’s student population. In 2006, Republican George Allen lost his Senate seat to Democrat Jim Webb by about 9,300 votes.
Both presidential campaigns have been courting the youth vote at campuses in Virginia, targeting large public universities such as the 28,000-student Virginia Tech with voter registration drives. In early September, the State Board of Elections told local officials that college students can register to vote using their dorm room addresses.
Falwell urged students at a September convocation to register in Lynchburg. A week later, more than 3,000 had signed up, overwhelming the registration office so that it had to ask school officials to help process the forms.
“I wanted to have the pleasure of being able to go to the polls to make a difference in the community,” said student Grace Woodson, who had been registered in Stamford, Connecticut.