New Survey Finds West Virginia Students Reject Party Lines, Vote on Issues Instead

Henry Cerbone, left, and Abby Pletcher, right, seniors at Preston County High School, sit with their teacher Danielle Barker. Barker distributed the survey to her students.

Red state vs. blue state. Conservative vs. liberal. Republican vs. Democrat.

These binary terms dominate the nation’s political narrative leading up to major elections, including this year’s midterms on November 6. The national media likes clear cut sides to a political story, but a deeper look at the thoughts and feelings of Appalachian youth show a generation struggling to fit their opinions about the nation’s most timely issues into those boxes.

That’s just one insight gained from a survey of nearly 800 high school seniors across West Virginia conducted last month by 100 Days in Appalachia and Inspire U.S., a nonpartisan organization that encourages high school students to be civically engaged.

The students shared their opinions on a number of topics including health care, immigration and environmental regulations. The results show that the politics of these young voters, many of whom are gearing up to cast their first ballots, don’t fall within the normal party lines recognized by most Americans.

For example, nearly half of respondents– 44 percent– strongly agree same-sex couples should be able to marry, while 43 percent either strongly agreed or agreed that the number of people allowed to immigrate to the U.S. should be reduced.

“It’s interesting that all these people have very strong opinions about immigration, especially here, because we don’t really have immigrants in West Virginia,” said Preston County High School senior Henry Cerbone, who disagreed with immigration limits. “But people…don’t really know and they don’t really care about the positive effects of immigration.”

Nearly 60 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that access to assault-style firearms should be more restrictive, while 34 percent support or strongly support arming their teachers in school.

In the wake of several high-profile school shootings this year, including the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the issue of gun control has sparked a national movement getting young people active in politics.

Trey Keys, right, sits with a fellow student at Tyler Consolidated High School. Both shared their thoughts about the survey questions with 100 Days in Appalachia.

Credit Ashton Marra / 100 Days in Appalachia
100 Days in Appalachia
Trey Keys, right, sits with a fellow student at Tyler Consolidated High School. Both shared their thoughts about the survey questions with 100 Days in Appalachia.

“I don’t want to have to go to school thinking, ‘Am I going to die today?’” Trey Keys, a senior at Tyler Consolidated High School said. “Schools shouldn’t have to feel like they have to have cops everywhere. We should feel safe at school.”

This election cycle, access to affordable healthcare is one of the top issues in many races. Over 60 percent of respondents said they support the government providing healthcare to all U.S. citizens, whether they have the ability to pay for it or not, and 36 percent supported a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.

November’s midterms will be the first time many of the participating students are eligible to vote.

Half of those polled who are eligible to vote said they will definitely cast a ballot Tuesday, compared to 16 percent who said they probably or definitely will not.

The survey was conducted in September using technology from GroundSource, which sends questions directly to students via text message.

Students were not required to respond to every question, although a majority did. The survey, however, is not a representative sample of West Virginia teens. They were recruited through their high school civics teachers.