For students who recently navigated the multiple routes to the polls to cast their ballot in the 2016 presidential election, it is no secret that the process of voting in this country can often be convoluted and confusing. From policies on early voting to those regulating online registration, each state varies wildly in voting legislation.
In New York, for instance, an eligible voter is able to register online to vote, as well as cast their vote without being required to present identification. However, same-day registration to vote and early voting are not allowed in the state—unless specific criteria are met such as absence from the county on Election Day or illness, in which case a person may participate in a process called in-person absentee voting.
Voting is even more complicated for Vassar students, as the thousand-acre campus is divided into three separate voting districts. Students in Cushing, Noyes and the Terrace Apartments are in one district, with the rest of the campus split between two additional districts, requiring students from Main and Noyes, for instance, to travel to different off-campus polling stations to cast their vote. Dutchess County, whose county executives and legislature have historically trended to the right, has also leaned Republican in 10 out of the past 14 presidential elections. By splintering a liberal-leaning campus into three separate districts through a troublesome history of gerrymandering, the student vote is effectively diluted. Furthermore, when faculty members run for office, some of their students are inevitably not their constituents based on their dorm and therefore cannot support them.
While attempts to suppress and manipulate the student vote are by no means a new issue, they are indicative of a larger problem of voter suppression. In one instance, a Florida state representative admitted to trying to keep students from voting with a 2011 election reform bill that he sponsored, which primarily aimed to shorten early voting, disproportionately affecting younger voters and minorities (Huffington Post, “Rep. Dennis Baxley Says He Targeted College Students With Florida Election Reform Law,” 12.20.12). Likewise, Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster insisted upon an investigation of college students for alleged voter fraud, citing no tangible evidence, while Indiana State Representative Peggy Mayfield fought for legislation that would prevent students that paid out-of-state tuition from voting in Indiana (Bangor Daily News, “GOP chairman says university students behind voter fraud,” 7.25.11; Huffington Post, “Indiana GOP Lawmaker Wants To Block Out-Of-State Students From Voting,” 2.06.13).
Most instances of student voter suppression stem from frustrations that the students are transitory members of the community. Here at Vassar, during our four short years as Poughkeepsie residents, we are often isolated from interactions with permanent town and city residents. In fact, for some students, leaving campus to vote may be the only time in the week or month that they manage to break out of the “Vassar Bubble.” However, as long as we recognize our responsibility to educate ourselves, there is no reason we should not have the power to effect change from our temporary home.
Even students who choose to vote in their hometown via absentee ballot are liable to run into a range of challenges. Ohio’s strict absentee rules mean that voters who make mistakes, such as writing a name in cursive rather than print, may be disenfranchised (The Columbus Dispatch, “U.S. Supreme Court rejects final challenge to Ohio voting laws,” 10.31.16). In fact, in 2012, more than a quarter of a million absentee ballots were rejected across the country, either for arriving too late or for issues such as the voter’s signature not matching the signature on file closely enough (NPR, “Want Your Absentee Ballot to Count? Don’t Make These Mistakes,” 10.22.14). Furthermore, absentee ballot application and mail-in deadlines vary state-to-state, leading to the question of whether Vassar should publicize important dates in the voting process or notify the community when deadlines are approaching—and the larger query of what the institution should be providing to help students vote.
Under the Higher Education Act, colleges and universities are required to make a “good faith effort” to distribute information and materials on voter registration, but beyond this, actively engaging students in the voting process is imperative to fostering higher voter turnout and promoting a more informed electorate. Currently, Vassar supplies shuttles to Poughkeepsie polling places on election days, typically running back and forth every 30 minutes.
On Nov. 4, Dean of Students Adriana di Bartolo sent an email encouraging students to vote and supplying information on polling places and shuttles. For students with busy academic schedules, however, even getting off campus for half an hour could be a challenge. Nearby at Bard College, students have called for a polling place to be located on campus, noting that not only should on-campus voters not have to deal with the inconvenience of shuttles, but also that the school should not have to incur the cost (Bard Free Press, “We Are the 68%, 4.15). Bard administrators also champion active institutional engagement: the College provides administrative support to students affected by voter suppression efforts (The Huffington Post, “Colleges Should Promote and Defend Student Voting,” 08.12.16).
In contrast, much of the support Vassar students receive in the quest to cast our ballots comes from student organizations. Democracy Matters assists with absentee voting and Dutchess County registration and provides pamphlets on Election Day with facts on candidates (The Miscellany News, “Student organizations work to improve voter registration,” 10.05.16).
While the work done by such orgs is important not only in practical matters but also in nurturing political discourse on campus, students lack the legislative power held by the College—power Vassar may well need to utilize if students again experience the type of voter suppression that occurred in 2009, when chairman of the Poughkeepsie Republican Committee Thomas Martinelli challenged 60 students’ votes on a residency basis (Times Herald-Record, “Bard, Vassar students’ right to vote supported by NYCLU,” 11.02.10).
Increased efforts from the institution to support voting, as well as continued efforts from the student body to educate ourselves and do our civic duty, will certainly create positive effects in future elections—especially for first-generation students, some of whom may not be as familiar with the intricacies of registration and voting. We are privileged to be here at Vassar, and in many ways, we are already aided in exercising our democratic right. But the fact that voting can be such a challenge even here in a voting-supportive community speaks to the obstacles faced by voters, young and old, across the country— problems that must be addressed if we are ever to have a democracy that truly represents the interests and desires of the people.
— The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board