So What About Those Student Voters?

With many on campuses flocking to the polls, some were frustrated by long lines and other voting obstacles.
November 5, 2008

In the lead-up to Tuesday’s presidential election, watchdog groups warned of misinformation campaigns, challenges to student ballots, and, not least, long, long lines in precincts located near college campuses.

“They were corroborated in that most of them happened but they’ve been dealt with better,” said Matthew Segal, executive director of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE). "The sad truth is that's because we're expecting problems to come now. Whereas in the past four, eight years, they sort of caught us by surprise."

"The systemic problem was that our election process wasn't updated enough to take into account the fact that more people were registering than ever before," said Bill Shiebler, national field director for the United States Student Association. He reported, for instance, large numbers of college students being told to cast provisional ballots because, due to delays in processing their registrations, their names didn't appear on the voter rolls sent to precincts.

"Because our election process was outdated, it couldn't account for or accommodate record numbers of students voting on Election Day," Shiebler said.

While detailed numbers on youth turnout will be released today, young voters "at least held their own as overall turn-out increased," said Peter Levine, director of Tufts University's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). Data from national exit polls show that young people ages 18-29 represented 18 percent of total voters in the election, one percentage point higher than in 1996, 2000 and 2004, when the figure was 17 percent. The share has stayed fairly constant given the overall rise in participation, but Levine said that an 18 percent share combined with increased turnout would mean significant growth in total youth turnout this year.

Youth voters trended heavily Democratic, preferring President-Elect Barack Obama over Sen. John McCain by a ratio of 68 to 30 percent, according to CIRCLE's Election Night analysis: "This is by far the highest share of the youth vote obtained by any candidate since exit polls began reporting results by age categories in 1976."

By and large, many youth voter advocates reported pockets of problems, but large numbers of students voted nonetheless. "It's long lines, it's broken machines," Deborah Rose Hinchey, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of the College Democrats of America, said Tuesday afternoon. "It's not the end of the world and it certainly won't stop young people from voting."

Among some of the incidents involving college voters Tuesday:

Misinformation. Tuesday got off to an inauspicious start at George Mason University, in the battleground state of Virginia, when a hacker sent an e-mail to 35,000 students and employees -- under the provost's name -- alerting recipients that Election Day had been moved to November 5. "We have been getting calls, people wondering what's going on," said Daniel Walsch, a university spokesman. "People wonder how could the university or why would the university send out a message like this. A few have called confirming if it's true or not.

"We've been trying to be as upfront and open about this as possible. We've been victims of a hoax and we're trying to get to the bottom of it." The university did send out the correct information in a subsequent e-mail Tuesday.

On a similar note, as Tuesday unfolded, youth voter advocates became increasingly concerned about text messages circulating in several states -- including Florida -- stating that, due to heavy turnout, Obama voters should wait to vote until Wednesday (i.e. today). "The misinformation campaigns were more nefarious, you could say," said Segal, of SAVE.

"In the past you would have to physically hang a flyer. Now that these campaigns and parties are using text messages more frequently, not only do they appear more confusing and more real, they're also spreading virally."

Challenges to Student Voters. In Iowa, Poweshiek County Republican Party leaders filed challenges regarding 50 Grinnell College student voters who registered at the campus address where they receive mail, as opposed to their dorm addresses. "Their challenge was this was a campus post office, not a residence," said Diana Dawley, the Poweshiek County auditor. A special precinct board will consider the matter Thursday at noon, she said. "This isn't a new issue. We've used Grinnell College with a post office box or just a common address for years, but it's just being challenged now," Dawley said.

In Georgia, Election Protection, a coalition of voter protection organizations, was monitoring the ability of Middle Georgia College students to vote in Bleckley County. The organization reported that while about 500 students (who are largely African-American) had registered before the deadline, the registrar sent a letter asking 370 students to submit proof of residence within three days. "Most of these students did not even receive the letter until after that deadline had passed," states Election Protection's account, which adds that voting officials subsequently withdrew an extension, which would have allowed students to show proof of residence on Election Day. "[A]t 4 p.m. [Monday] the Democratic Party received a letter from the county attorney stating that students would not be allowed to cast a regular ballot unless proof of residence had been presented prior to Election Day," states the group.

"There were not substantial numbers of non-students who were new registrants who had to produce that information. They're basically holding students to a higher standard," said Martin Matheny, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Georgia.

The Bleckley County registrar did not return a message. "The chief just told me that we have no comment and we don't have time for this; we're just really busy," said Melanie Witte, a member of the county's board of registrars. The county attorney did not return a call either.

Meanwhile, back in Virginia, Mike Wade, chairman of the Third Congressional District Republican Committee, identified more than 200 new registrants, mostly college students, who had also requested and received absentee ballots from one of three states (Georgia, Pennsylvania or North Carolina). Wade sent an e-mail to Virginia registrars Monday with the names so they could challenge voters suspected of having previously voted.

“We’re hoping that they didn’t commit a felony and vote twice," said Wade.

“These folks were really cajoled, is a good word, misled is another good word, flat-out lied to is another good statement, about why they should register in Virginia."

Long Lines. At the University of Connecticut, Jeffrey Czerwiec, a campus organizer for the Connecticut Public Interest Research Groups, reported that college voters were being split into separate lines from non-college voters at a polling place just off campus at the Mansfield Community Center. "Pretty much all day there's been no wait for the people who live in the town of Mansfield, whereas there's been a long line for U Conn students," said Czerwiec, who estimated the student wait varied from two to three hours throughout the afternoon. Connecticut elections officials did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday evening.

Many reported lines in the two to three hour range. CNN reported lines that lasted up to 11 hours in a suburb of Philadelphia where Lincoln University students voted.

Meanwhile, at Kenyon College, in Ohio, which became synonymous with such long lines in the 2004 election, Anna Salzberg, a senior and president of the college's SAVE chapter, picked up the phone when it rang. "I am working at the polling place and I do have time to talk because there's no one here, actually," she said.

"It's been a steady stream of people, but nothing crazy at all," Salzberg said. "We have eight electronic machines and paper ballot options versus 2004 where we had one working machine and no paper ballots.

"I know that they've really been giving Kenyon special attention."


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