Student Voting: An Opportunity, Not a Problem

[Image courtesy of University of California-Irvine]

A version of this post first appeared in The Hill on March 17, 2011.

As the 2012 election approaches, voting by students is once again a source of controversy and concern – especially in Maine, where students have found themselves caught in the middle of the dispute over repealing the state’s Election Day registration law.

To be sure, it’s partly a political battle. Students can play a pivotal role in elections, and so where they vote matters. As state legislatures debate voter identification, residency requirements, same-day registration and even voting by mail, students are a popular target.

The real focus, however, should be the impact of America’s growing population mobility on the nation’s election system. The Census Bureau estimates that one in six Americans–including but not limited to students–moves each year. The average American moves eleven times in a lifetime.

The current questions about student voting rights echo traditional tensions between longtime community residents and recent arrivals who may not be there for the long haul. The legal issues, at least, are clear: in the 1970s, some courts ruled that communities cannot require new voters to meet long-term residency requirements and that students were eligible to cast ballots in college towns even if it wasn’t clear how long they would be living there.

This debate is intensifying with the pace of mobility. Population mobility is a considerable stress on our election system, which places a heavy emphasis on residence as a component of eligibility. Any influx of new voters into a community brings with it concerns that they are not eligible in their new homes or that they might still be on the rolls elsewhere.

These concerns continue to linger–and regularly erupt into controversy–because our election systems are poorly equipped to deal with mobility at all, let alone in today’s numbers. State voter registration systems, in particular, still operate on a voter-driven, paper-based 19th-century model difficult to navigate and maintain.

Students are considered a constant challenge to this system not just because of their mobility but because of their large numbers. The solution, then, is not to make rules specifically for students but instead address the shortcomings of a system that creates concern about their eligibility to vote.

The goal, quite simply, should be to design a registration system that ensures that every eligible voter who wants to register will be on the rolls once, only once – and only in one community. States and localities should strive for a level of accuracy and integrity in voter registration so that energy can be focused not on ensuring that registered voters are eligible but rather on ensuring that every registered voter has an opportunity to vote.

Controversies about student voting present states with an opportunity to re-engineer and reform our voting system, not just for the benefit of those away at school, but for all Americans.

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