On July 31st, Senator Dick Durbin and Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Steven LaTourette and introduced the Student Voter Act in both chambers of Congress, moving America one step closer to a system that welcomes eligible young voters into our democratic process.
Young people in general, and students in particular, have traditionally registered and voted at far lower rates than other citizens. The good news, as CIRCLE and Rock the Vote report, is that youth voter turnout has steadily increased over the last four election cycles and was more than 100% higher in the 2008 primaries than in previous primary elections. The bad news, as an upcoming report by the Brennan Center notes, is that there are still significant barriers to student voting, including misleading information about requirements for voter registration and residency laws that do not accurately reflect the mobility of young adults in modern society.
One significant obstacle to student participation in elections is the lack of easy access to voter registration. The Student Voter Act would help remedy that situation. While the Higher Education Act mandates that colleges and universities make a “good faith effort” to distribute voter registration forms to enrolled students, this law has not been widely implemented. A 2004 study by the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Harvard Institute of Politics shows that less than a quarter of schools comply with the letter of the law regarding distribution of voter registration forms, and that a full third of universities did not even comply with the spirit of the law.
The Student Voter Act would amend the National Voter Registration Act, commonly known as the “Motor Voter Law,” to require colleges and universities to provide students with the opportunity to register to vote when they register for classes, just as citizens can register when they apply for drivers’ licenses or social services. This would ease access to voter registration and encourage students to take advantage of their voting rights. As colleges and universities implement this bill (or the Higher Education Act), they should inform students of their options to register either where they attend school or where their parents’ live, depending on which they consider their residence.
By providing students with an easy point of entry to the electoral process, the Student Voter Act is an important step forward in increasing the participation of young Americans in our democratic process. Ultimately, we should move toward a system of permanent and universal voter registration so that every eligible American gets on the voter rolls and is not thwarted by needless bureaucratic obstacles to their civic participation.