Students: Get Educated on Election Law Changes in Your District | Sojourners

Students: Get Educated on Election Law Changes in Your District

Heads up, students! 

Under the guise of taking steps to protect against “voter fraud,” some lawmakers may be making it more difficult for you to vote.

If you’re a young person with a transient living situation, and especially if you’re an out-of-state college student who wishes to vote in the state where you attend school, it’s time to start paying close attention to your state’s election requirements and laws.

Efforts are already underway across the country to make it more difficult to vote, and if you’re not prepared, you may find yourself without an electoral voice come next November.

Approximately 37 states either have or are in the process of changing eligibility requirements for the 2012 election, and a recent report from the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center predicts that they could affect up to 5 million voters from traditionally Democratic districts, affecting as many as 171 electoral votes.

These efforts are very effective, and often more self-aware than any of us are comfortable believing.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when you register to vote and, most importantly, when you head to the polls to make your voice heard:

Difficulty of Registration
In 2004, my first presidential election, then Secretary of State and Chief Elections Officer Ken Blackwell already was increasing the rigidity of voter registration requirements in my home state of Ohio. As part of the election landscape, there was provision requiring all voters to provide a street (i.e., physical) address rather than simply their mailing address.

The difficulty this posed (and continues to pose) for students is simple: many college students have addresses associated with their student mailboxes rather than their on-campus residences. At Oberlin College, where I attended school, few of my fellow students living on school grounds new the actual, physical address of their dormitories, and in the vast majority of cases the addresses were not even printed on the buildings themselves.

Luckily, our famously (and, in some circles, notoriously) civically engaged student body distributed flyers with dormitory address information by way of assisting students wishing to vote using their school residence.

As an additional impediment, some states even require proof of residence (such as a government-issue ID* or utility bill) for first time voters. Since many students do not receive bills at their colleges addresses, and fewer still receive bills to their dormitory’s street address, this can pose a mighty challenge for students who wish to prove that they do, in fact, live in a college dormitory.

The best thing for students to do is to make sure they understand all of the voting requirements of their state in advance in order to make sure you dot all of your i’s and cross all of your t’s to avoid any election day surprises.

Government-Issued Photo ID Requirements
Many states are adopting or have already adopted measures requiring that registered voters present a valid, government-issued ID on Election Day in order to vote. While this seems like common sense, in presents a myriad of problems for student voters that must be overcome.

The first problem is that not all registered voters have government-issued state IDs. Opponents of a recent Texas bill that required all voters to present a government-issued ID noted that more than 1 million of the states 13.5 million registered voters simply could not meet that requirement.

Efforts by Democrats to include a provision recognizing student IDs as valid photo identification was defeated.

There is also the possibility that poll workers simply won’t be able to recognize valid government IDs from other states or issued through other, less traditional outlets (passport cards, military IDs, etc.).

Other problems can be more subtle.

When I approached the table to get my ballot in 2004, I thought I was ready. I had filled out my paper work correctly, I arrived early in the day, and I understood the process.

Just one snag: as an Ohio-native voting in a district away from my hometown, my driver’s license did not match my voter registration address.

This in turn led to an argument over whether my registration could be “confirmed,” and if I’d have to fill out a provisional ballot instead of a regular ballot. While I successfully argued my way to a regular ballot, there was the very real possibility that I would have had to cast my vote provisionally were I not well-educated on my rights as a student voter.

Even with all my preparation for Election Day, I still wasn’t ready for this type of challenge to my registration. 

Other X-Factors

  • Early voting: Again, out of concerns for “voter fraud,” many states are diminishing or even closing altogether the timeframe for residents who wish to vote early.  For people with Election Day scheduling conflicts (such as work, class, out-of-state travel, etc.), this presents a unique set of logistical problems. Make sure you check to see whether your state has changed it’s early voting policies for the 2012 election.
  • Registration and Polling locations: Concerns about government spending have triggered a wave of austerity measures across the country, which in some cases include the closing of many post offices, DMVs, and other locations where local residents can register to vote. These closings disproportionately affect low-income areas. 

The Brennan Report indicates that these changes may also result in the closing of many on-campus polling locations across the country. Make sure you know where and when you will be able to register to vote in your state.

  • Polling logistics: Even after jumping through all of the hoops to register in 2004, I still had to wait more than three hours to vote after arriving only 15 minutes after the polls had opened. Some people in Oberlin waited as long as five and a half hours to vote, with similar reports flowing in throughout the day from across the state.

These issues were mostly the result of particular locations being understaffed and undersupplied with voting equipment.

If you plan to be busy on Election Day, consider voting early if your state allows it. 

Otherwise you may have to be willing to wait (and wait and wait) to cast your ballot on Election Day.


Matthew Santoro is a communications and new media professional in Washington, D.C. He was a Capstone Scholar of Religion at Oberlin College, graduating in 2007. Matthew completed his Master's degree in Political Science at American University in 2009. Follow him on Twitter: @Rantoro.