Leader Blues

Monday, November 20, 2006

TOP STORY >> Do Harding students tilt elections?

IN SHORT: Critics say those from out-of-state who attend the private university in Searcy vote in blocs to affect the outcome of local elections, but Democrats and Republicans both says thatís democracy at work.

Leader staff report

A plea from a White County man for Harding University students, particularly the Republicans, to stay out of local elections is almost certain to go unheeded because both Republicans and Demo-crats are organized on campus as they are on other college campuses and are working to help their parties.

The plea in a newspaper ad paid for by Dennis Gillam, the independent candidate for White County judge, came from El Paso resident Arvil Tucker, a Democrat, who says in the signed ad that it isnít right for students from Montana or Michigan to elect the White County judge.

ďPlease donít do that to us, Searcy,Ē he says, connecting the conservative Church of Christ school to the city, which voted overwhelmingly for the Republican candidate.

But the fact is that both Democrats and Republicans are organized on the campus. They help local candidates and they vote and thereís no law to keep them from doing that. Tanya Burleson, White County clerk, said both groups register new voters, and all she can do is caution them to make sure the new voters understand that the ballots they receive will be for local elections and not for elections in their hometowns.

According to officials with the Arkansas secretary of state, there is no real residency requirement for voting. All eligible voters at least 18 years of age are allowed to vote where they live as long as they register 30 days before the election and swear that they wonít vote anywhere else. A description of the College Democrats of Harding on the university Web site says the purpose of that organization is to ďpromote a greater political awareness a-mongst the students of this university, to support the highest values and policies of the Democratic Party and those public officials who exemplify these values, and to help the community benefit from these values and policies.Ē

The College Republicansí goal is ďto develop all Republicans on the campus into an intelligent, aggressive, cooperative, and informative Republ-ican group; to provide through its organization a means to encourage participation in the activities of the Re-publican Party; to promote in every honorable and appropriate way the platform and candidates of the Republican Party; to provide the student body the means for getting practical political education.

Helping students learn about politics is one of the schoolís jobs, said Jack Shock, staff sponsor of the College Democrats. ďItís a university. Thatís what we do,Ē he said.

But what if the real goal of the ad was not to shame the handful of out-of-state students who might cast ballots in White County, but rather to rile Democrats and independents enough to make them vote in the Nov. 28 runoff election between Gillam and Michael Lincoln, the Republican who carried every precinct in Searcy?

The Nov. 7 election ended with Gillam coming in second to Lincoln, and Waylon Heathscott, the Democratic candidate, coming in third. But the vote was close with Lincoln taking 36.9 percent, Gillam 31.9 percent and Heath-scott 31.1 percent.

With the help of the Democrats who voted for Heathscott, Gillam could win easily in the runoff and show the Searcy Republicans that they canít decide who will look after the rural part of the county.

Getting the Democrats and independents out a second time is especially critical for Gillam be-cause the Searcy mayorís race also is on the runoff ballot, so many of the same residents who voted for Lincoln the first time will likely go to the polls again for the mayorís race.

Contacted Friday afternoon, Lincoln said he feels good about the runoff because he believes some of Gillamís negative ads against him have backfired. He denies Gillamís claim, also in the ad, that he wants to tell country people what they can do with their property and how it must be maintained. Like Gillam, he also has support among Democrats, he said, and he believes he can win this race.