Every four years, like clockwork, two declarations make the rounds: (1) This is the most important election of our generation, and (2) young voters will help determine the outcome.
Usually, proponents of both claims end up disappointed. But, given the increases in turnout seen during this year's primaries, there's reason to think that this time, at least, first-time voters, and especially college students, could play a decisive role in November's political contest. And that possibility is motivating nonprofit groups and members of Congress to take a closer look at the dizzying jumble of local and state election laws that could affect -- and in some cases, discourage -- students' participation in the electoral process.
The issue took on greater urgency when the registrar of elections in the county that is home to Virginia Tech notified students at the beginning of the semester that by registering to vote locally, instead of at their permanent residence, "you have declared your independence from your parents and can no longer be claimed as a dependent on their income tax filings" -- a change in status that could affect scholarship money, the news release suggested.
Legal experts, student activists and even other registrars of elections in Virginia agreed that the claims were unsubstantiated, and that not a single case of a student losing his or her tax status or scholarship as a result of registering to vote in the local district had been recorded. A later, more neutrally worded release from the county urged students to check whether their health or automobile insurance coverage would be affected by registering to vote where they go to college rather than where their parents live. (Insurers say it would not.) This week, similarly false claims about registering to vote were exposed in Colorado Springs.
A collection of Congressional leaders, election officials, activists, students and one college president convened at a hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday to present some of the legal obstacles facing college students who have the desire to vote, often in the districts where they spend the academic year and attend classes.
"We are currently witnessing a political re-engagement by young people," said Catherine McLaughlin, executive director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. She added: "According to research from CIRCLE ... youth voter turnout doubled, tripled and even quadrupled in numerous states during [this year's] primaries and caucuses. We have every reason to expect solid turnout in November."
To kick off the first panel, held by the House of Representatives Committee on House Administration, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) discussed the bill she introduced in July, the Student Voter Opportunity To Encourage Registration (VOTER) Act of 2008. It would amend the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 to treat colleges as voter registration agencies, much as the original law, also known as the Motor Voter Act, allows citizens to register when they obtain driver's licenses and at public assistance agencies. In effect, colleges and universities that receive federal funding would be charged with providing students with mail voter registration forms when they sign up for classes.
Despite a "small rise" in the youth vote in 2004 over 2000 (about 11 percentage points), Schakowsky said, they are still "far less likely to vote than older voters," such that less than half of voters from the ages of 18 to 24 (47 percent) voted, compared to 66 percent of those 25 and older.
"I'm also troubled by efforts to intentionally mislead young voters," she added, citing the controversy in Montgomery County, home of Virginia Tech, which "can have a devastating consequence by intimidating young voters into not voting." And while the bill is taking "one step forward," she said, there are still other issues to be concerned about, including photo identification requirements in seven states that could disproportionately affect the 19 percent of young adults from ages 18 to 29 who don't have such an ID, according to a Rock the Vote survey.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given college students' disproportionate tendency to support Barack Obama for president, it is Illinois Democrats who have been most vocal about student voting, especially in a year when turnout at colleges in battleground states (like Virginia and Colorado) could help tip the election in either direction. Sen. Richard Durbin, for example, introduced the Senate companion to Schakowsky's bill. Still, both leaders are making rigorous efforts to keep the number of Democratic and Republican co-sponsors (such as Rep. Steven LaTourette, Republican of Ohio) equal to preserve its bipartisan appeal.
Although the bill, even if passed soon, wouldn't affect this year's election, advocacy groups have already mobilized to spread awareness and address legal complaints now. At a news conference held Wednesday by the Student Association for Voter Empowerment, which originally brought the bill to Schakowsky's attention, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the House majority whip, said that the election could be "won or lost ... before Election Day."
"We must start our voter turnout efforts when they open up the polls ... for early voting," Clyburn said, referring to some projections that up to a third of voters could submit their ballots before November 4 this year.
At Thursday's hearing, Matthew Segal, SAVE's founder and executive director, recounted some documented instances of misinformation campaigns, such as flyers posted around the University of Pennsylvania in 2004 claiming that out-of-state students who voted there could lose their scholarships or driver's licenses. And other legal barriers, such as some states' prohibition on using P.O. boxes as addresses when registering to vote, disproportionately affect students who live in dorms, he said.
So what, other than pursuing legal challenges, can be done to boost student voter turnout?
McLaughlin, of Harvard's Institute of Politics, mentioned her own center's absentee voting guide, as well as a Web site called No Vote, No Voice devoted to increasing youth turnout at the polls during this year's primary season. At the site, students could download a Facebook application to "pledge" to vote and remind them of upcoming deadlines. The institute conducts campus-wide voter registration efforts, including going door to door in dorms and houses. She added that having an on-campus center with dedicated staff was a major advantage in such efforts, and that integrating voter registration with course registration, as the pending bills in Congress seek to do, is an effective mobilization method.
The president of Oberlin College, Marvin Krislov, told the panel about a ruling by Ohio's secretary of state in February that allows colleges and universities in the state to issue utility bills to their students -- without actual payment, since parents are paying for the services through room and board fees -- in order to fulfill the state's requirements for proof of residency for voters without a photo ID.
"That ruling was the result of a two-year struggle by student and statewide organizations to make it easier for Ohio's college students to exercise their right to vote," Krislov said. "The progress we are making on student voting issues is due in large part to the hard work, intelligence and persistence of student leaders at Oberlin and other schools."
In Wisconsin, election laws recognize potential barriers to student voters and make provisions to ease the process for them, said Neil Albrecht, deputy director of Milwaukee's election commission. Besides allowing registration on Election Day, Wisconsin allows colleges and universities to provide lists of students living in campus housing 10 days or fewer before an election to local districts. That way, students can use their college ID cards (which usually don't have addresses or other contact information) as proof of residence.
While she had nothing to do with the misleading messages coming out of Montgomery County, Sheri Iachetta, the general registrar of the City of Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, offered her thoughts on how to interpret the state election law. The issue of student registration comes up "time and time again," she noted. But rather than second-guess those who register in the city, she added, "[m]y longstanding policy has been to accept at face value what the voter has written on their registration form," affirming that they are citizens and residents of the state.
"I don't believe I have a reasonable cause to question the statement of a voter simply because they are part of a particular group," Iachetta said. "To do so would create a special class of voter, and as you are aware, Virginia falls under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and any attempt to create a special class of voters would run afoul of this act."
For many people, the issue boils down to whether students intend to remain at their addresses indefinitely -- or, whether, as she put it, "they have a vested interest in the operation of local government.
"To this, I would answer that students are regular and frequent users of city resources including the roads, emergency services and police resources. They are a valuable source of volunteers to any number of community-based programs. They are directly affected by all the local ordinances such as [use of] bicycles, noise controls, trash collection and more.... Students are a significant source of fiscal resources in this community, not only for the tax dollars that they bring in but because they are included in the census of the local population; therefore, significant federal tax dollars are allotted for this locality based on their presence."
While he didn't advocate any change in public policy governing voter registration, the committee's ranking Republican, Rep. Vernon Ehlers of Michigan, noted that student voting could arouse "a lot of anger on the part of some of the citizens" who live in the local community permanently. Students who don't pay local taxes, he pointed out, might be more willing to vote for ballot initiatives that would not have otherwise passed, further straining town-gown relations.