top of page

The Student Voting Mess

By Shera Avi-Yonah, The American Prospect | July 28, 2020

While higher-education administrators wring their hands over falling enrollment and tuition dollars, another crisis is looming for nearly 20 million college students: Socially distant learning might imperil the programs that push them to register and vote.

Even before the pandemic, Republican state legislatures were slowly tightening restrictions on college registration, particularly for out-of-state students.

In Wisconsin, would-be voters have to provide proof of residence in the form of documents like rental agreements, utility bills, or car registration—all papers it’s hard to imagine a harried college student finding, particularly if they live in an on-campus dorm or go to a school that bars students from bringing cars.

In New Hampshire, registrants have to prove “domicile” in the state using one of several specific documents, most notably a New Hampshire–issued driver’s license. Critics of the law—including the ACLU, which is challenging it in federal court—have pointed out that a New Hampshire license costs $60 that students might not have.

And seven states—Arizona, Iowa, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas—don’t accept student IDs as a valid form of identification. Under Texas law, a voter can use a state-issued handgun license but not a college ID.

These laws would create problems for student registrants in a normal year—in fact, they were designed to. In pandemic conditions, they might prove disastrous.

Nancy L. Thomas, who directs the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts, gave the example of a student who lives in Ohio but goes to college in New Hampshire. After being sent home from school in the spring, they could have registered at home. But this fall, they might head back to school without sufficient time to collect the documents necessary to re-register. Or, if they haven’t registered at all, collecting the documents New Hampshire requires has become near impossible.

“This is the quintessential voter registration, voter record problem,” said David J. Becker, who directs the Center for Election Innovation & Research.

In any other year, campus registration programs would smooth out the problems students face via in-person sessions. At Northwestern and Cuyahoga Community College, registration staff set up stations as students moved onto campus, offering them five minutes to explain their options and help them fill out forms. Administrators at Stony Brook University offered students the chance to register at orientation and in the lobby of their student center. In past cycles, many college voting programs have raised registration rates by nearly 30 percent.

But the nature of socially distant campus life renders many of the tools campus voter engagement groups use unrealistic. Many of them now have to figure out how to transfer the social engagement central to civic programs online.

Michael Peshkin, who helped set up registration programs at Northwestern, DePaul, and Columbia College, said the latter schools are trying out two different approaches.

At DePaul, students will set up what amounts to a Zoom version of the Northwestern program. In early September, all incoming students will set up a meeting with a voter registration “genius”—a student trained in registration laws around the country—who will help them explore their options.

Four miles away, Columbia College is pursuing a slightly different model. In addition to meeting with volunteers, students will go through a unit on voting as part of a required first-year class, answering quiz questions on state election laws. Ally Longo, a Columbia student and volunteer with the project, said her group is also currently in the process of making voter guides, beginning with students’ most common home states. She added that when she came to college at age 18, she was not yet registered.

School programs like these are powered by a group of national organizations like Campus Vote Project, the ALL IN Democracy Challenge, and Students Learn Students Vote. Still, their work is premised on the assumption that state legislators can and will continue to set up hurdles to college voting.

Jennifer Domagal-Goldman, who runs the ALL IN Challenge, cited research that has repeatedly shown that procedural barriers like the ID laws, rather than disinterest, drive the relatively low registration and voting rates among young people. She also pointed to the stakes of the college registration problem: Once students vote for the first time, they become likely voters for the rest of their lives.

In the absence of better laws, Thomas said solving the registration problem will hinge on getting sometimes reluctant college and university presidents to support student voting this fall.

“It has consistently surprised me how quiet college presidents are about matters of public concern, and how few presidents have been saying anything about undemocratic practices in this country,” she said. “From what I can see, the election isn’t immediate enough for it to be bumped up on the list of really significant and valid concerns. I’m not blaming anybody, I’m just putting them on notice.” Link to article (with audio):

# # #


bottom of page