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Commentary & Opinion

NY State can help overcome voter suppression of college students

The Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 and prohibited voter discrimination based on age. When it was enacted in 1971 with strong bipartisan support, President Nixon emphasized that “America’s new voters, America’s young generation” would bring “moral courage” and “a spirit of high idealism” to the country as it approached its bicentennial.

Fifty years later, voter suppression against college students is commonplace, including in New York counties home to colleges and universities. A bill pending in the State Assembly can help change that.

New York Bill A454/S4658, already approved by the State Senate and endorsed by Governor Hochul, would provide for:

  •  on-campus polling sites at colleges with more than 300 locally registered voters, including early voting in some instances, and
  •  prevent the division of college campuses into multiple election districts.

The Assembly had the opportunity to pass similar legislation in previous sessions, but demurred. It should act now.
What does youth voter suppression look like?

First, election officials put polling locations in places that are difficult for student voters to reach.

In Dutchess County, a Republican Election Commissioner has insisted for years that Bard College students vote at a small church a mile and a half from campus that is neither near public transportation nor handicap accessible—despite the fact that Bard students constitute a significant majority of voters in the district and Bard has offered use of its spacious and accessible campus facilities. This Commissioner told one judge that “college students being vocal about political issues” is a reason to prohibit voting on campus, as if docility and disengagement are key criteria for political participation. This Commissioner even insisted that voting remain at the church instead of moving to Bard’s campus during the 2020 election despite the fact that church officials notified the Board of Elections that the church building was unsafe due to the risk of Covid transmission. That’s right, a public official would rather risk the well-being of voters and poll workers than allow for a polling site on a college campus.

Versions of these difficulties have emerged across the state. On Long Island, students at Stony Brook University were required to travel three hours by public transportation to vote at the nearest early polling site. In Onondaga County, an election commissioner steadfastly refuses to allow a poll site at Onondaga Community College.

In a second suppression tactic, students are singled out for cumbersome registration requirements. A few years back, students at Marist, the Culinary Institute of America, and Bard had their voter registrations systematically rejected until a federal judge ordered election officials to accept commonly used mailing addresses.

A third way in which students are targeted is to divide campuses into multiple districts thereby requiring unsuspecting students to re-register when they change dormitories. Vassar College, for example, is divided into no less than three electoral districts for its 400 registered student voters.

These barriers to youth voting are a creature of New York’s highly politicized county election commissioners (one Democrat, one Republican per county), who are appointed by local political parties. The threat of a lawsuit does not deter them, because we taxpayers pay their legal fees. Establishing or changing a polling location requires both commissioners to agree; absent agreement, the system freezes. A frustrated federal judge who ruled in favor of students from SUNY Purchase in a 1986 case captured the dynamic well when he decried the local commissioners for having “constructed an impasse so firmly rooted in an unyielding foundation of petty party politics as to require the intervention of the Federal judiciary.”

Youth voter suppression and intimidation must stop. Studies show that voting is habit forming. People who vote when they are young are more likely to be repeat-voters. Students often identify more with their college communities, where they live, work, eat, and shop, than they do with the communities where their parents live. Colleges encourage students to engage locally through civic engagement activities, expressing the idealism to which President Nixon referred. They run tutoring and arts programs for local youth, and volunteer in senior communities and social service organizations.

Isn’t it hypocritical to welcome college students into our core community institutions while excluding them from exercising their right to vote as citizens in those communities? It’s no wonder they are cynical about the political process.

In addition to the State Senate and Governor Hochul, groups including NYPIRG, Common Cause, GenVote and the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities have endorsed this legislation. It is time for the Assembly to get off the sidelines.

Removing barriers to student voting will help restore democracy and allow youth voters to demonstrate the “moral courage” and “spirit of high idealism” that President Nixon invoked fifty years ago with the passing of the 26th Amendment. Democratic voices in particular who denounce the wave of voting restrictions sweeping red states must acknowledge the problem in our own blue state and enact this bill into law. Bill A454/S4658 deserves the support of all New Yorkers.

Jonathan Becker is Executive Vice President and the Director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. He is co-author of a forthcoming article on the role of institutions of higher education in defending student voting rights, which has been selected for publication by the Rutgers University Law Review Symposium volume dedicated to Voting Rights Reform and the Twenty-Sixth Amendment.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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