College students face an uncertain and unprecedented fall semester. COVID-19 leaves them worrying about where they will live, how they will interact with their friends and professors and what job prospects they will have when they graduate.
And, as we head toward a contentious November election, add to that list confusion about how and where to vote.
College students have always been targets of voter suppression. Young voters only received constitutional protection for their right to vote in 1971 with the passage of the 26th Amendment.
In seven states — Arizona, Iowa, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas — strict voter ID laws have meant student IDs cannot be used for voting at all.
Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, a “proof of domicile” law makes registering to vote more difficult for students, particularly those from out-of-state. And, in the last few years, Florida tried twice to prevent early voting centers from being located on college campuses. Both times these suppression efforts were blocked by a federal judge.
Even North Carolina’s 2013 voter suppression law which “target[ed] African-Americans with almost surgical precision” also aimed to prevent student voting. The Republican law ended a program that allowed 16 and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote in high school civics classes and when they got driver’s licenses.
Heading into the 2020 elections, a recent headline in the New York Times stated it succinctly: “The Student Vote Is Surging. So Are Efforts to Suppress It.”
Even absent intentional efforts at suppressing the student vote, college students face a dizzying array of obstacles and misinformation about the voting process every election.
What’s more, voting by mail, which will be an essential part of this fall’s election, poses a much greater risk of disenfranchisement to students than to the general public. A study of Florida’s 2018 election found that voters 18-21 faced a one in 20 chance of their mail-in ballot being discarded, while a voter over 65 faced an approximately one in 200 chance of meeting the same fate.
Shifting voting laws compounded by uncertain return to campus plans have left student voting hanging in the balance.
In addition to the usual uncertainty surrounding voting rules, students are now having to grapple with daunting questions: Does taking virtual classes mean relinquishing the right to vote as a resident of their college communities? If students start at college but leave before the end of the semester, where can they vote in person?
Just as colleges and universities must meet the challenges of COVID-19 to protect student safety, so too must they protect their students from voter suppression and disenfranchisement.
Colleges and universities are uniquely situated to protect their students’ voting rights. They are a trusted source of information for students navigating this difficult time. They have the means to communicate with their students. And they have a moral and educational obligation to take an active role in protecting voting rights and ensuring that all eligible students are able to cast a ballot and have their vote count in November.
Here are five steps that colleges and universities should take now to protect student voting rights:
1. Provide every student with a clear summary of the state’s registration and voting requirements.
A memo emailed to students and posted on the school’s website that explains the voting laws in the school’s state, including the voter registration laws and how to obtain an absentee ballot and vote by mail, is essential. This should include the rules for students who wish to vote as residents of their college communities, even if they are taking virtual classes in the fall as a result of COVID. This will allow students to make a fully informed decision as to where to register and vote.
2. Provide every student who requests it the necessary confirmation of residency and a form of address verification the student may use to vote.
For states that require it, proof of residency requirements will be even more burdensome this year with students away from campus, unable to obtain utility bills or paychecks that they normally receive during the school year. Colleges and universities must provide students with temporary proof of residency forms and address verification documents that can be forwarded to wherever students are voting from.
3. Provide students with resources to assist with the process of voting.
Because postage and printing are often obstacles for young voters, schools should mail physical copies of absentee ballot applications to all students. In states that permit it, schools should provide postage to their students for applications and voted absentee ballots and should place drop boxes and collection points for students to return ballots on campus. Schools should provide free witness and notary services if required for students to vote by mail. Schools should also establish a helpline and email help desk for students to contact to answer any questions about the voting process.
4. Provide regular encouragement and deadline reminders.
Colleges and universities should send emails and text messages to encourage registration and voting and remind students of all relevant deadlines, specifically the voter registration deadline, absentee ballot request deadline and ballot receipt deadline. Schools should harness their social media platforms and most popular accounts — often sports teams, popular coaches or alumni — to amplify similar messages to the entire student population.
5. Hold local election boards and legislators accountable for their suppression of student voters.
Colleges and universities are important stakeholders in their communities and must use their influence to advocate for student voting. Colleges and universities increase employment, stimulate local business and enrich the community. Colleges and universities must make clear to local government officials that student voting rights will define the relationship between the school and its surrounding community. Schools must send the message that they will hold local governments accountable for voter suppression aimed at their students.
Millions of students will vote this November — many for the first time. We cannot allow this pandemic to sever the critical tie students have to their campus communities and deny them the right to vote from a place they still call home.
History has taught us that confusion over where college students can vote and how they may access the voting system (which many are getting acquainted with for the first time) often causes eligible young voters not to register to vote at all.
Schools have a responsibility to ensure that their student body is fully informed about their right to have their voices heard by exercising their most fundamental right, and that they have the knowledge and tools to enable them to successfully do so. This is even more important in an election year that will define the redistricting process and, thus, the next decade of campus voting.
Students have the same right as all Americans to elect their representatives and to have their voices heard. Colleges and universities have an obligation to defend and support this right with any and all possible resources.