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Safeguarding Against Voter Disenfranchisement

Voting rights advocates are examining voting infrastructure and laws in anticipation of high young voter turnout in November.

Four years ago students at Kenyon College in Ohio who wanted to vote in the presidential election had to wait in line up to 10 hours. Their precinct had two voting machines — one was broken — to serve more than 1,300 registered voters.

Before the 2004 election, voter participation among students had steadily declined in the years following 1972 when 18-year-olds first won the right to vote.

Flash forward to 2008. The youth vote has risen in the past three consecutive elections, and there are no signs that it will slow down, voting advocates say.

This year’s historic election is creating even more of a groundswell of excitement, particularly among this demographic. Activists say young voter turnout increased 70 percent during the primary season over what was seen in the 2004 general election.

But many of the problems students experienced four years ago in Ohio and across the country have yet to be fixed and may prove worse this November when even more new and young voters head to the polls.

Voting infrastructure, such as machines, outdated voter rolls and the number of qualified poll workers, has not kept pace with the rising number of students who want to participate in the electoral process, said Sujatha Jahagirdar, program director at the Student Public Interest Research Group’s New Voters Project. “Several barriers persist,” Jahagirdar said during her testimony before a congressional panel in September.

Add to that the likelihood many voters, including students, will have their rights challenged at precincts on Election Day, and there will be a mixture for long lines and disenfranchisement that will be nearly impossible to correct before election results are tabulated.

Jahagirdar said restrictive photo identification laws pose the biggest threat to young voters.

Nationally, almost one in five students do not possess the required state-issued identification, according to the Student Association for Voter Empowerment, or SAVE, a national nonprofit that seeks to protect youth voters and promote civic engagement among this same demographic.

“This hits out-of-state students particularly hard,” says Matthew Segal, who helped found SAVE after the 2004 election when he watched his fellow Kenyon College students and others turned away from long lines caused by too few voting machines.

“If I have a Georgia driver’s license, but I attend Ohio State University, they won’t let me use my Georgia ID, even though I have the legal right to vote in Ohio because I’ve lived there for more than 30 days and I contribute to the tax base there.”

This problem is exacerbated, advocates say, by misleading information campaigns that tell students they could lose crucial financial aid or negatively impact their parents’ tax status by registering to vote at school.

Just last month, election administrators in Blacksburg, Va. — home to Virginia Tech — released erroneous guidelines suggesting that student voters could lose their scholarships or coverage under their parents’ car and health insurance by registering to vote at school. Several students canceled their registration based on the information, according to advocates and media reports.

Once a Republican stronghold, Virginia is now considered a swing state in the upcoming election. It also has the strictest, yet most ambiguous, residency laws in the country, according to a report released by the Century Foundation and Common Cause. Both organizations crusade for effective and open government.

The report, called “Voting in 2008: Ten Swing States,” examines mostly battleground states, where advocates anticipate the most problems in November. Virginia tops the list. The report looks at other places that have a history of voter disenfranchisement and also provides an in-depth look at student voting rights.

Virginia falls under the review of the U.S. Justice Department because of its history of voter disenfranchisement and violations of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; therefore, election officials, like those in Blacksburg, should take extra care in how they interpret the state’s murky residency requirements, advocates say. Some college institutions are working to counter this brand of voter disenfranchisement created by identification laws. For example, the president of Oberlin College in Ohio, another swing state, sent every student a utility bill that reflects services already paid for as part of the student’s tuition and that can be used by students when registering to vote or if their residency status is challenged at the polls.

As for the long lines on Election Day, the 2008 voting report says that issue will be harder to track. And voting advocates aren’t as hopeful about solving this problem.

“There are no laws in place requiring the number of voting machines to be allocated according to the number of registered voters per precinct,” says SAVE’s Matthew Segal. He calls it “gerrymandering by voter machine” and finds it interesting that the long lines he witnessed in Ohio happened only in precincts dominated by student and minority voters.

Four years ago Segal worked to bring food and water to those who waited in those long lines, in order to help make sure their votes counted.

He might have to do it again this year.

Voter Resources:

The Brennan Center for Justice, at the New York University School of Law, has a Web site to let students know their voting rights: The Tom Joyner Morning Show and the NAACP National Voter Fund have partnered to launch 1-866- MYVOTE1, a voter alert line that allows people to find out where their polling places are located, register to vote and report problems at the polls. Election Protection, a coalition of legal and civil rights groups, recently announced a national voter protection initiative, including another hotline number (1-866-OUR-VOTE).

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