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The College Vote: A Waking Giant

By Deborah Bennett, associate professor, Liberal Arts and Sciences

"I Voted" sticker

Image used by permission via the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license

If the mid-term elections of 2018 taught us anything, it is that the youth vote is seen as a threat to the Republican party. Upending the stereotype of an uniformed, unenthusiastic constituency, a  79% jump in voter turnout amongst youth tilted the scales for Democrats in senate and gubernatorial races in places like Wisconsin, Nevada and Montana.  A younger, more diverse host of candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts inspired young voters in 2018. Two years later, some are asking if 2020 will be the year of the youth vote, while others worry that voter disenfranchisement will put this waking giant back to sleep.

When Bernie Sanders lamented the low turnout among youth in the 2020 primaries, some saw this as a direct result of Republican efforts to suppress the college vote. From Texas to Florida, Republican legislators have raised a host of barriers from limiting on-campus voting to making parking difficult for college students.  These efforts, coupled with a global pandemic, make the college vote a question mark in the upcoming election.

Not only have legislators taken official actions to suppress the college vote, they have joked about their efforts. As a professor at Berklee, I have had a front row seat to the challenges college students face when trying to vote, and they do not find it funny. Just before the mid-terms in 2018, I listened in between classes as my students talked about the difficulties of voting in the midterms. Representing different regions, genders, and ethnic and religious groups, they all faced tremendous obstacles to voting because of one trait they share—they are college students.

From residency laws to arcane procedures for absentee voting, college students face many barriers in exercising their constitutional rights. In places like New Hampshire, Republicans have been frustrated by college students’ impact on elections, leading the legislature to pass a confusing law that dictates students who register to vote who also plan to drive while living in-state, must obtain a NH license. And for those who try to vote back home, absentee voting can be a nightmare with long lead times for requesting ballots, a written justification for an absentee ballot, and even notarization. Another hurdle? Absentee ballots must be cast by snail mail, and students don’t even know how to buy stamps anymore.

The stereotype of college students as apathetic needs to be retired. Far from being slackers in this democracy, they are demonstrating they will go to great lengths to voice their political opinions with their vote.

Back in 2018, one of my students knew exactly where the post office was, but he needed more than just a stamp. After waiting weeks, his ballot finally arrived the Saturday before the election, and he ended up spending $35 to send it overnight to his home state of Nevada to ensure it arrived on time.  Another student, Hannah, gave up on her absentee ballot when she realized she had misread the dates on the websites she consulted. “I wanted to vote in my home state because it’s a swing state, but I had to register in Massachusetts. I was glad to vote, but it wasn’t easy. I had classes all day on election day, and the polling location was not close to campus.” Yet another student skipped classes and drove eight hours to Pennsylvania to vote when her absentee ballot never arrived.

Signature verification is also a challenge for absentee voters. Maniya, from Pennsylvania, described how her ballot was invalidated because the voting commission insisted she did not sign it. “I had tried to vote in 2016, and they sent my ballot too late. This time, I was determined to have my vote count. I even called the state to ensure they received my ballot, which is when I found out they were rejecting it. I know I signed it. Maybe they whited out my signature?”

Of course, two years on, another obstacle has arisen: COVID-19. With cases of the virus surging in many states, and uncertainty around how long campuses will remain open, college students are attempting to vote in their first presidential election amidst a global pandemic and misinformation. One question that troubles Jennifer Domagal-Goldman, from Civic Nation is, “if students who may have wanted to vote in person at local campus precincts are sent home, will they be able to at that point vote absentee or reregister at their parents’ address?”

Still, this generation will not go quietly into that gentle night of voter suppression.  In New York and Texas, lawsuits have been filed in protest against laws that restrict college students’ ability to vote. Students are persevering to ensure their votes count and are actually counted, publicizing efforts to turn them away. Maniya uses every app in her toolbox to do just that: “We need to talk about the experiences we are having on social media. There are people who are against us, but if we use our voices, some people will listen…and they will be with us.” And everyone from Michelle Obama to the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream is working to turn out the youth vote this year.

The stereotype of college students as apathetic needs to be retired. Far from being slackers in this democracy, they are demonstrating they will go to great lengths to voice their political opinions with their vote. We hear you. And we are with you.

Deborah BennettDeborah J. Bennett is an associate professor in the Liberal Arts and Sciences Department. Her poems and essays have appeared in Salamander, Tupelo Press, Edify, Only a Game and Cognoscenti. Recently, she and Dr. Simone Pilon presented their research on gender inclusive language in Romance languages at the Pacific Asian Modern Language Association Annual Conference.


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1 Comment

  1. Patty Craig

    I appreciate this insightful analysis. I continually confront stereotypical derogatory remarks about young adults that are simply unfounded. The disrespectful and subversive actions taken to limit the voices of our young people is disturbing. May your students’ resilience and determination to participate in our democracy be rewarded! Our society will be the beneficiaries.

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