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Should College Students Be Required to Vote?

Free to make the wrong decisions.


July 12, 2016

Every so often I read an argument that’s delightfully wrong. It’s way off-base, but it’s so earnest and well-intended that I can’t help but engage. This is one of those.

Katherine Oh, writing in the Washington Monthly, argues that students at private colleges should be required to vote. (She exempts public colleges for obvious first amendment reasons.) The idea is that if college towns start wielding disproportionate political power, then other towns will necessarily imitate them, resulting in higher levels of voting and a more representative democracy overall.


It’s true that young people vote at much lower rates than older people do, and it’s not much of a stretch to assume that policy preferences skew older as a result. Politicians have learned that they can defund higher education with minimal political consequence, even as Social Security has remained sacred. And it’s true that other forms of civic engagement -- jury duty leaps to mind -- are mandatory. As a poli sci guy who has voted in every general election since 1986, I’m all in favor of higher voting rates, especially among groups that have historically been less involved. I’ll go so far as to say that I consider the systematic efforts at disenfranchisement in many states to be not only objectionable, but offensive. I support the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and I’m old enough to remember when that wouldn’t have been considered controversial.  


I’ll leave aside the constitutional issues, because they’re a conversation stopper. Assuming that the justices wouldn’t laugh it out of court, why is mandatory voting a bad idea?

Start with the assumption about who “college students” are. Oh’s article assumes that they’re young, and just learning the habits of citizenship. That may be true at selective colleges, but it doesn’t describe community colleges well at all. Nationally, the average age of a community college student is in the late 20’s. I have a hard time accepting the proposition that a 35 year old working single Mom has to be ordered to vote, for her own good. Freedom includes the freedom to make decisions with which I personally disagree.

Some students aren’t eligible to vote, whether because of immigration status, criminal records, or homelessness. Some have religious objections to voting. Requiring them to do something they aren’t allowed to do doesn’t strike me as productive.

Questions of “domicile” and financial aid would arise quickly. I ran into this one in my own student days. Students domiciled in one state and attending college in another have to be careful where they register, so as not to imperil their aid eligibility. That’s typically less of an issue at community colleges, which tend to draw locally, but some of them are near state lines and draw students from the other side.

Then there’s the “what about everybody else?” issue. Oh seems to think that representation is apportioned according to voter turnout. It isn’t. It’s apportioned either by state (the Senate), or by population, whether the population votes or doesn’t. Higher turnout rates do not translate into greater representation. At most, they may result in more accurate representation, and that’s to the good, but it’s less likely to cause the positive contagion she assumes.

I’d hate to keep dedicated non-voters away from higher education by putting up another hoop for them to jump through.  

Enforcement is trickier than Oh lets on. She’s correct that colleges routinely withhold transcripts from students who owe money, or who haven’t returned library books. But those matters can be resolved quickly.  If you have the money, you can pay a fine anytime the bursar is open; returning a library book is even easier. But elections only happen when they happen. If you miss one, you’ll have to wait at least a year (and maybe more) for the next one. Depending on how “voting” is defined -- would it include elections in which only local positions are on the ballot? Would it include primaries? -- it could take multiple semesters before a student who missed one could make it up. That’s a hell of a long time to hold someone’s transcript, without which she can’t transfer to the next institution.

I’m not especially worried about the idea becoming law anytime soon. If anything, the political momentum is around restricting the franchise, rather than expanding it.  I’m all for expanding it, but in ways that make the choice easier. Have elections on Saturdays, or over weekends.  If you’re wedded to Tuesdays, make election day a national holiday.  Allow same day registration. Experiment with ways to make absentee voting easier. Rethink whether a country with the incarceration rate we have should really disenfranchise so many. And any candidate who wants to has an open invitation to start talking about issues that young people find important enough to be motivating. Hell, if we’re being idealistic, do what we do for jury duty and pay people for it -- five bucks a head, say. As some folks noted on Twitter, maybe we can convince Nintendo to hide some Pokemon Go critters at polling places.  Use their powers for good.

But make it a graduation requirement? I don’t think so. Nonvoting may be a stupid statement, but it’s a statement people should be free to make.



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