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Voting on college campuses could make a difference in November

As the nation’s politics become increasingly polarized in a highly divided nation, new voters could easily become the “kingmakers” of November’s elections. Polls show the nation is evenly divided as they consider the Presidential candidates of the major political parties. Given the recent razor-thin votes in key Presidential battleground states, a swing one way or another can tip the balance into who gets a majority of the Electoral College ballots.

Here in deep blue New York, presumptive Republican candidate Donald Trump is extremely unlikely to win the state in November. However, in determining control of the U.S. House of Representatives, a very small number of competitive seats can make all the difference. The stronger-than-expected electoral performance of House Republican candidates in New York in 2022 provided the difference that swung control of that Chamber.

Once again this November, control of the House may turn on a small number of seats, five of which are located in New York State. All of those incumbents won in 2022 with razor thin margins.

Assuming tight elections again in 2024, new voters could make the difference in who controls the House. And a large number of these new voters could come from colleges and universities across New York.

There are over one million college students in the state. And there are many who live in the five districts in which the House incumbent won with a tiny margin.

Across New York, colleges are filled with students who historically are less likely to vote yet have a common community. The unfortunate history of student voting has been one in which officials too often seek to suppress participation among this voter segment.

A key battleground has been the right of students to vote in their college communities. Perhaps not surprising, local elected officials and boards of elections did not, in all cases, look kindly upon the newly enfranchised student electorate. Even though college students are—for the purposes of the federal census—considered residents of college communities, efforts to limit the student vote persisted. After years of court battles, boards of elections in New York are required to register students to vote from their campus addresses if the student wishes.

As has been the case when fundamental rights are extended to new groups—which threatens the status quo—securing the legal right to vote did not mean that actually voting would be easy for young voters.

As a result, barriers persisted. Year after year, students have faced obstacles to registration and voting in counties around the state. Some counties target students by further splitting campus populations into multiple election districts or removing the campus poll site.

In 2022, New York State enacted a new law that required General Election polling places be placed on colleges and universities that had at least 300 registered voters living on campus. That legislation was approved to help college students vote in elections from their on-campus addresses.

Under the new state law, colleges that have “three hundred or more registrants who are registered to vote at any address on such contiguous property” must have a polling place placed on “contiguous property or at a nearby location recommended by the college or university and agreed to by the board of elections.” Despite the new law, New York’s college voter turnout in 2022 was disappointing, under 30 percent.

Part of the problem is that it appears that many colleges did not have polling places as was expected after passage of the new law. A recent study showed that a majority of colleges in New York State do not have on-campus poll sites and there had been almost no change since the passage of this legislation.

The question is why?

That question has not yet been answered. Was it a failure of the law or its enforcement? It is imperative for policymakers to examine this issue and see whether state law needs to be strengthened or implementation falls short or both. However, the issue must be examined – failure to allow college students the opportunity to cast their ballots on campus is an indefensible restriction on their constitutional right to vote. And, a policy failure in this area could change the course of the nation’s – and the world’s – history.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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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