Voter registration day was last Tuesday, Sept. 27. Symbolically, it’s an important day, reminding us that November is approaching fast, that we all need to get it together and re-register. But that can pose challenges.
The Vassar Democrats, Democracy Matters and the Vassar College Libertarian Union (VCLU) all agree: getting students to vote is hard. According to co-president of Vassar’s Democracy Matters chapter Sam Beckenhauer ’18, if 300 of Vassar’s 2,500 students vote this year, it’ll be a success. Voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts can’t be accomplished in a single day. They take sustained, highly-visible efforts. Especially on a college campus where students are often buried in readings, exams and campus activities, too busy to look up every once in a while and notice that the real world goes on.
Student groups that focus on political issues like the Vassar Democrats and VCLU also encourage their members to register to vote. The Vassar Democrats send emails and Facebook posts out to their members with instructions and deadlines on how to vote. And according to VCLU Treasurer Christopher Kramer ’18, no voter registration efforts from his organization have been finalized, but says such initiatives are under discussion.
But it is Democracy Matters that does the lion’s share of the sustained work needed to get people to the polling place. Democracy Matters is a national nonpartisan, campus-based student organization whose primary goal is to get the influence of money out of politics. However, as its name suggests, the group also helps students get involved in the democratic process. Vassar’s chapter, run by co-presidents Beckenhauer and Sophia Goncalves-Brown ’18, tables regularly in the College Center. They help students register to vote in Dutchess County and navigate the often complex process of setting up an absentee ballot, and they register hundreds of students every year when first years sign the matriculation book. On Election Day, the group passes out pamphlets that list candidates’ stances on major issues, and facilitates a fleet of vans to shuttle students to and from voting booths. The Vassar Administration provides these vans to Democracy Matters, which, according to the organization’s executive director, Joan Mandle, is unusual. “The Vassar Chapter works closely with the Administration. This is something that’s very good at Vassar that doesn’t happen a lot of other schools. The Administration is very supportive.” Still, the Vassar student voter turnout is never great, but that’s not necessarily because of uninterested students.
Vassar students face an unusual amount of obstacles on their way to the voting booth. Students can’t use their mailing address to register (124 Raymond Avenue). Instead, they have to use their specific dorm and room number. But this information changes every year, so students have to re-register every year as well. Furthermore, Vassar’s campus is heavily gerrymandered, actually broken up into three different districts. Beckenhauer explains, “We have three different districts on Vassar’s campus. You could be living in Main House and be in one district but then you move to, like, Cushing and you’re technically in a different district. So you could move 100 feet on Vassar’s campus and have to go to a different voting booth.” The THs are in one district, Cushing, Noyes and the TAs are in another district, and the rest of the dorms are in a third. Most Vassar students are unaware of this, so without the Democracy Matters shuttles that organize students based on which district they live in, many Vassar kids might show up at the wrong voting booth on Election Day. Once there, the lost student could fill out an affidavit to prove they simply made a mistake, but these forms are rejected between 60 and 70 percent of the time. According to Beckenhauer, Vassar’s gerrymandered status also reduces the political potency of its liberal student population, “It has a huge effect when we have faculty, especially librarians, run for office. I know there was an election a few years ago when this happened. A librarian ran for office, but since she lived on Raymond Ave, Vassar students weren’t her constituents. So if they lived in Main or the TAs, they couldn’t vote for her. This is extremely difficult, since there can be people Vassar students would want to vote for but can’t.”
The Administration itself tries to support student participation in voting by providing free shuttles for students during Election Days to local polling stations. These shuttles cater to the different districts which Vassar students fall into. Mandle said, “One of the big problems with student voting is that they can’t get to the polls. Because they’re far away and not all students have cars obviously. So getting students not just registered, but making sure that they actually get to the polls is at least as important. I know Vassar’s started doing that.”