Mock the Vote

With young voters favoring John Kerry over George Bush, election boards across the country are illegally denying college students the right to vote.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry takes questions from students at the College Convention in Manchester, NH. New England College, January 8th, 2004. Credit: Michele McDonald/The Boston Globe via Getty

Like any good American citizen, Young Han wanted to cast his ballot in the presidential primaries. So in October, the sophomore at Hamilton College walked into the office of the county election board in Utica, New York, to register to vote. Han couldn't make it back to his home state of Washington to participate in its caucuses — they were being held in February, the same week Hamilton requires sophomores to declare a major — so he decided to vote in the state where he actually lives.

But at the election office, a county official told Han that only "permanent residents" may register to vote. College students, she informed the clean-cut twenty-year-old, must vote where their parents live. "This is just how we've always done it," county election commissioner Patricia DiSpirito told Rolling Stone. "A dorm is not a permanent residence — it just isn't."

In fact, DiSpirito is flat-out wrong. Federal and state courts have clearly established that students have the right to vote where they go to school, even if they live in a dorm. But interviews with college students, civil-rights attorneys, political strategists and legal experts reveal that election officials all over the country are erecting illegal barriers to keep young voters from casting ballots. From New Hampshire to California, officials have designed complex questionnaires that prevent college students from registering, hired high-powered attorneys to keep them off the rolls, shut down polling places on campuses and even threatened to arrest and imprison young voters. Much as local registrars in the South once used poll taxes and literacy tests to deny the vote to black citizens, some county election officials now employ an intimidating mix of legal bullying and added paperwork to prevent civic-minded young people from casting ballots.

"Students have been singled out for outright discrimination," says Neal Rosenstein, government-reform coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group. "If someone was challenging the voting rights of a military person who is stationed somewhere temporarily, we'd be screaming that it's not patriotic. There shouldn't be any less of a standard for students, who work and pay sales taxes in those communities."

When Congress passed the Twenty-Sixth Amendment in 1971, lowering the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen, 11 million new voters gained access to democracy. But nothing in the new law defined where they should vote. At first, most local election officials assumed that students belonged with their parents. Then, in 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students can vote where they go to school, if that is where they establish residency.

Over the years, however, the court has refused to clarify what constitutes residency for college students, leaving local election officials to decide for themselves. As a result, the rules vary wildly from zip code to zip code. Some registrars make it as easy as possible, simply asking students what they consider their primary address. Several states, including Pennsylvania, Texas and Michigan, ban most added scrutiny as a form of illegal discrimination.

But in recent years, many election officials have been building a variety of hurdles to make it more difficult for students to register and vote. In May 2002, the city council in Saratoga Springs, New York, shut down a polling place at Skidmore College, forcing students to travel off-campus to vote. That same year, a judge in Arkansas tried to block 1,000 students at Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University from casting ballots, ruling that they must vote in their hometowns — even though the deadline for absentee ballots had already passed. And when students from the University of New Hampshire showed up at the polls on Election Day that year, poll workers handed them a pamphlet warning them that voting locally could affect their financial aid and taxes. The scare tactic worked: Many students left without voting.

Refusing to register students is "a blatant form of disenfranchisement," says Jennifer Weiser, who advocates for young voters as associate counsel of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. "It's clearly illegal."

In some cases, election officials simply don't seem to understand the law. Jehmu Greene, president of Rock the Vote, was surprised by the response when her group called state election offices in Oregon and Washington about laws regarding student voting: "They were clueless about the issue," says Greene.

In many cases, however, there's more than ignorance at work. In small college towns, students often outnumber all other voters combined — raising fears that they could determine the outcome of local elections. The colonial town of Williamsburg, Virginia, has only 6,000 registered voters — and 7,600 students at the College of William and Mary. In January, when campus leaders began pushing students to register and vote, the city responded by requiring every student to fill out a two-page questionnaire detailing everything from their personal finances to where their car is registered. Of an estimated 150 students who completed questionnaires, only four have been registered. "They don't want students involved," says Rob Forrest, who quit school and moved off campus so he could run for a seat on the city council. "It's a cop-out to interpret the law like this — and if the law says that we're not supposed to get involved, then the law is wrong."

There's no way to tell how many college students are being turned away by local election boards — but observers say it could be enough to re-elect George Bush this fall. Voters under the age of twenty-four favored the Democrats by at least twenty percentage points in each of the past three presidential elections, and polls this year indicate that they favor John Kerry by as many as ten points. If the race is as close as last time, keeping turnout down among voters at one major college campus in each battleground state could tip the election to the Republicans.

Students who are denied the right to register at college can always opt to vote by absentee ballot — but requiring voters to plan ahead almost always reduces participation. "It is likely to depress turnout, because it is a harder burden than just walking up to a poll," says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

What's more, some election officials are also keeping students from the polls by making sure the polls are hard to get to. At Northwestern, Sacramento State and the State University of New York at Oswego, voting registrars have resisted demands to set up polling places on campus. "This is an intentional act of disenfranchisement," says the Rev. Jesse Jackson. "Students don't just have the right to vote — they have the right to vote where they live." Perhaps the most blatant attempt to intimidate young voters took place at Prairie View A&M University in Texas. The school is the last place one would expect a battle over voting rights: Twenty-five years ago, when black students at A&M were denied the vote by white county officials, the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling affirming that students can cast ballots where they go to school. But in November, District Attorney Oliver Kitzman published an open letter in a local newspaper accusing unnamed citizens of "feigned residency." Kitzman warned that any "illegal voting" would lead to a ten-year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine.

Students fought back. On Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, 1,500 students marched through the Texas town in protest, and Rock the Vote held a rally on February 23rd with Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest. "Students have to pay for food and shop in the town, so I think they should have some say in how it's run," Q-Tip says. The next day, under pressure from state and federal authorities, Kitzman settled a voting-rights lawsuit filed by A&M students and issued a public apology.

But despite the victory in Prairie View, some observers worry that the widespread discrimination will sour students on the political process for years to come. "Students complain to me all the time that county officials are thwarting their attempts to get involved," says Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000. "These kids are new to civic engagement. Students, who are often taking part in democracy for the first time, should be given every possible opportunity to vote. Instead, they face all these barriers." Even students who manage to register may find themselves unable to vote in November. Under the new Help America Vote Act, voters must now present valid identification when they show up at the polls — another obstacle for students whose driver's licenses often reflect their old addresses.

But many students may not even get far enough to deal with the new law. In New York, after a professor at Hamilton College called election officials on behalf of Young Han, they finally agreed to let him register. So Han resubmitted his application. But a week later, he received another rejection letter, stating that students are encouraged to "vote from their home county."

"It seems ridiculous that someone would have to go through all this just to register and take part in the political process," Han says. "Everyone talks about how young people don't get involved — but maybe it's because they make it this difficult."