One Student, No Vote
Activists across the country are organizing to ensure students get a fair shake at the polls.

By Adam Doster
Published December 6th 2007 in The American Prospect
When the Clinton camp voiced displeasure with Sen. Barack Obama for encouraging Iowa-registered, out-of-state college students to participate in the Jan. 3 caucuses, her campaign was taking a student voter disenfranchisement page right out of the Republican playbook.

Take this case in Maine. In January, a Republican state representative introduced LD 203, a bill that would have made Maine students ineligible to vote in their college town if they lived in university-owned housing while attending school. Proponents argued that college students, who may leave after graduation never to return, shouldn't be offered the chance to shape local policies. They also cited allegations of students casting absentee ballots in other states while simultaneously voting in Maine elections.

However, according to the secretary of state and the registrar of voters in Orono, home of Maine's flagship public university, no such voter fraud has ever been recorded. Even the bill's author confessed that he had no evidence to substantiate the accusations.

LD 203 was not the first assault on student voting rights in Maine. During the 2000 campaign, the town registrar of Brunswick, home of Bowdoin College, turned students away from the polls through deceptive residency questions. In 2002, during a close congressional contest, Henry Beck, a junior at Colby Collegeand the youngest serving member of the Waterville, Maine, city council, says Republican operatives flooded campuses with flyers threatening that students would lose financial aid or health care if they voted at school.

But this year, Maine students fought back. Activists filled hearing rooms, condemned the bill in newspaper and radio outlets, and organized online, arguing they live, work, volunteer, and pay sales taxes in their college towns. Their efforts eventually paid off; every major area newspaper denounced LD 203, and the State Senate voted it down in June.

Despite the success in Maine, student voter disenfranchisement is still prevalent across the country. As Renee Paradis, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law notes, "it's been a perennial issue ever since the voting age changed." But with the 2008 election quickly approaching, students and allies are finding innovative and sustainable ways to ensure that students can register and vote in the district they prefer, and activists hope it is one cure for low voting rates among young people.

To be sure, the obstacles student voters face can be disheartening. One is the ambiguous notion of what is home. In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students could vote where they attend school if they "establish residency," but the court refused to qualify what constituted residency. This left the task to state and local election board members. But the patchwork system opens the door for opportunistic partisans to utilize legal harassment and red tape to suppress a crucial voting bloc. "In our experience," says Beck, "Republican operatives close to election time bring up the issue in hopes that they can complicate voting or … shave off a couple hundred voters in this or that college town." Officials have created residency questionnaires (much like the literacy tests of yore) specifically targeted at students, rejected registration forms from dorms, and made empty threats that students will forfeit financial aid or their child dependency status when they switch their registration information.

Identification requirements complicate the residency question. Under the 2002 Help America Vote Act, first-time voters who register by mail must present identification (a current and valid photo ID or utility bill, for example) when registering or voting. According to the Institute of Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, 11 states require multiple sources of ID to demonstrate local residency. Advocates of ID requirements say such measures are necessary to prevent fraud, and local election boards are following correct procedures when they exclude voters who don't bring the required materials. But most studies have found that ID fraud is not a serious problem, and the end result is that a student whose school and home addresses do not match is often at the mercy of local officials, many of whom are wary of the impact student voters will have on their community in the first place.

Lackluster resource allocation also negatively impacts student voting rates. For example, some counties aren't equipped to deal with a flood of registration applications just before the deadline, even though colleges are known to be hot spots for Get Out The Vote (GOTV) drives. The positioning of voting machines poses another problem. Adam Fogel, the Right to Vote program director at the Center for Voting and Democracy, was at the University of Maryland for the 2006 midterms. He noticed that a precinct catering to professors and community members was outfitted with 12 machines and had no lines all day. Meanwhile, the precinct based at the student union only housed four machines, causing four-hour backups. And while the intentionality of such placement is difficult to verify, the sheer quantity of occurrences sets off red flags. "That's not unique to Maryland," Fogel says. "It's happened at college precincts across the country, and it's an inequity."

Students denied the right to register or vote on campus can always submit a provisional ballot, but there's no assurance that those votes will be counted. According to a 2006 briefing paper by the think tank Demos, over one in three of the nearly 2 million "fail-safe" provisional ballots cast in 2004 were rejected. Absentee ballots are another, more popular option for students, but requiring voters to plan ahead can depress turnout. Voting absentee is not the most reliable method either, as half a million ballots were rejected in 2004 on (sometimes dubious) technical grounds.

The difficulty in combating misinformation is amplified because the majority of students are only affected once or twice while on the same campus. "Because students cycle out every four years," says Paradis, "it's hard to build lasting institutional memory of how you can actually guarantee everybody who wants to vote and is entitled to vote gets to vote." Many colleges and universities aren't intervening either. A 2004 study by the Harvard Institute of Politics found that 33 percent of America's colleges and universities -- and 44 percent of private institutions -- are not in compliance with 1998 amendments to the Higher Education Act that requires schools receiving federal funding to provide students with a mail-in voter registration form.

Since the 2000 election, students on various campuses have contested the legality of local election board decisions, generally arguing that the Equal Protection Clause prohibits states from subjecting young people to more demanding registration requirements than other citizens. They've even won multiple cases. But thus far, the activist's approach -- register as many voters as possible and litigate on a case by case basis -- has been defensive and limited. So students and their allies are beginning to think strategically about ways to create lasting reforms that aren't susceptible to partisan hackery.

One such organization is the student-run, non-partisan Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE), created in May by Matthew Segal. The Kenyon College senior became interested in voting rights three years ago, when a lack of voting machines in Ohio forced him and some of his classmates to wait more than 10 hours to vote. "On one side, [students waiting] is a patriotic story," says Segal. "But the very fact that students had to wait in line that long showed the broken nature of our electoral system."

Prompted by that experience, Segal realized that preventing disenfranchisement required organized registration drives as well as direct lobbying for election reforms that would improve voting access. SAVE, and its 19 local chapters in Ohio, Virginia, Mississippi, and New York, has been busy at work on both fronts. A panel of students testified about barriers to registration and voting in the House Judiciary Committee hearing room in July, and local activists were encouraged to contact their state and federal representatives about the abuses. SAVE members are also working to register young people for 2008 through what they call an "institutional invasion," meaning they coordinate GOTV campaigns through institutions near their school -- religious communities, public service agencies, schools -- with which students are already involved. This strategy is more sustainable, they argue, because SAVE promotes strong civic education to quell misinformation and promote the value of the vote, unlike more mainstream, pop-culture infused registration drives. Elsewhere, students at New York University are teaming up with the Brennan Center to produce a state-by-state guide that will lay out the legal requirements for student voting, helping young registrants navigate the confusing and dissimilar laws.

While these are valuable first steps, young people's best opportunity to mitigate disenfranchisement may be aligning themselves with other election reform advocates. Various activists are endorsing reforms that would knock down barriers students encounter, such as establishing nonpartisan election administrations, national voting standards, and universal registration for all 18-year olds.

As Beck, Segal, and their allies know, ensuring the vote is an arduous fight. But it's one they feel is worth fighting. "It's not like voting irregularities are on the forefront of many people's minds," says Segal. "But I think these are extremely important and serious issues that are worthy of our attention and activism."