By Ben Peters
Athens NEWS Associate Editor
The Athens County precinct that encompasses much of the West Green dorms on Ohio University’s campus reported that just 5 percent of its 585 registered voters turned out on Election Day — a more than 45 percent drop compared to 2016.
Democrat Joseph R. Biden won 23 of the 29 votes cast in the precinct Tuesday and Republican President Donald J. Trump grabbed the remaining six, according to unofficial results from the Athens County Board of Elections. In 2016, 834 total ballots were cast of the precinct’s 1,622 registered voters.
Another precinct that includes many South Green residencies reported just 8.9 percent turnout of its 616 registered voters, a more than 50 percent disparity relative to 2016.
The likeliest reason for those enormous gaps is that only about 1,300 students currently live in residence halls, according to OU’s COVID-19 dashboard, because the university opted to only allow select groups of underclassmen to return to campus in an attempt to prevent a widespread COVID-19 outbreak. OU in November 2016 had more than 8,000 students living in dorms, a university spokesperson confirmed.
While the county inched out its final 2016 voter turnout with 25,100 of its 39,342 registered voters casting ballots for a turnout of 63.8 percent, most precincts that include OU student housing were extraordinarily lower than in 2016. There are, however, about 6,000 fewer voters in the county compared to 2016.
It’s always an open question in Athens County races how many registered voters actually live here, since OU students who register but graduate and move away stay on the rolls for a period of time.
Some students this year may have voted absentee, either by mail or in-person, or cast provisional ballots — tallies that would not be included in precinct data. Anecdotal evidence suggests that others likely voted in their hometowns in other counties. OU’s enrollment has dropped off by at least 2,000 students since the last presidential election, according to 2019 data, which may have further contributed to the decrease in both registered voters in the county and turnout within the city.
The disparity in turnout of student-dominated precincts may, in part, explain why Biden won Athens County with a tighter margin than Democrat Hillary Clinton did in the last presidential election. College students are historically a reliable voting bloc for Democrats, and Clinton in 2016 carried each student precinct by fairly wide margins.
Another student precinct with eye-opening results was one that encompasses much of the back South Green dorms, which reported just 2.9 percent turnout of its 412 registered voters. Turnout there was likely lower than other precincts this cycle because several dorms within it have been torn down since 2016, and a few have reportedly been reserved by the university this fall for quarantine and isolation space for students to relocate should they fall ill with the coronavirus. In 2016, 55 percent of the precinct’s 1,248 registered voters turned out.
The precinct that includes East Green residence halls reported a 12.6 percent turnout of its 509 registered voters. In 2016, 58.6 percent turned out of the precinct’s 912 registered voters.
Turnout was also down in many off-campus student-dominated precincts. One that includes portions of Mill Street and The Palmer Place Apartments reported 34.5 percent turnout of its 461 registered voters. In 2016, 57.7 percent of its 481 registered voters turned out.