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Students in Crossfire in Battles Over Voting Rights

Voting is a fundamental right for all American citizens over 18.  Yet even as we should be encouraging the next generation to be civically engaged, in many states students are being targeted by bills that make it harder to register and to vote.

  • Maria da Silva
June 2, 2011

Voting is a fundamental right for all American citizens over 18.  Some states—including Arizona and New York—have prioritized voting rights, with student engagement policies that should serve as models for other states.  Yet even as we should be encouraging the next generation to be civically engaged, in many states students are being targeted by bills that make it harder to register and to vote. 

In the current legislative cycle, a majority of state legislatures have explored increasingly restrictive voter ID legislation.  College students are particularly impacted by many of these voter identification proposals, especially when student IDs do not qualify as photo identification for voting.  But even more disturbing is a new trend of bills that seek to explicitly make voting more difficult for college students.  The most notable recent example was New Hampshire House Bill 176, which would have created a special voter residency standard for students and members of the military who lived elsewhere—including elsewhere in the state—prior to matriculating or being stationed in New Hampshire, thereby preventing students from voting in state or local elections.  The Brennan Center forcefully opposed this bill, and argued that it would likely be unconstitutional.  Fortunately, after college students of all political stripes banded together to voice their opposition, the bill died on the House floor.

Instead of spending energy imposing restrictions on students, policy makers should pursue efforts to strengthen students’ ability and desire to vote.  Luckily, some legislators and college administrators have recently answered this call by taking proactive and positive steps to encourage student voting.  In 2010, the Arizona legislature enacted HB 2668, requiring the Arizona Board of Regents and community college district boards to work with local student government groups to adopt plans to increase student voter registration and voting in elections. 2011 offers hope that New York will soon follow suit.

Currently, a bill pending in the New York State Senate would specify how colleges and universities  provide voter registration materials to their students and make colleges, universities and public schools participating registration agencies under the National Voter Registration Act (“NVRA”). A 1998 Amendment to the Higher Education Act requires all colleges to make a good faith effort to provide voter registration forms to students; New York State election law takes one step further by requiring every public college and university (including SUNY and CUNY) to provide voter registration forms at the start of each academic year and in January of presidential election years.  This bill, S542A, goes the extra mile to ensure that New York colleges and universities take seriously their duty to bring their students into the democratic process.

While S542A is still making its way through the legislature, Sarah Lawrence College will embark on a pilot program this fall to improve student access to voter registration materials and information, including by making both state and national registration forms available when students register for their courses and by providing registration collection stations.  Furthermore, an endowed fund will support a paid student worker to provide voter information and assist students registering to vote.

We join S542A’s sponsor, State Senator Jeffrey Klein, in applauding Sarah Lawrence for their efforts.  As Klein stated, “voting is the most important thing you can do to effect change, which is why students should be educated on the voting process so their voices can be heard. We need to replicate what Sarah Lawrence is doing on their campus on every campus in the state of New York.”

Here at the Brennan Center we will remain vigilant and work to ensure that students remain allowed—and encouraged—to exercise their right to vote!  In the meantime, check out our Student Voting Guide for information about your state’s voting eligibility requirements.