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Jan 24 / Corey Peterson

Student: We Must Break Down the Barriers to Voting


Photo by PennStateLive/Creative Commons License

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, those elected by the votes of millions of Americans—the president and vice president—were sworn into office once again. As young voters and students, our impact on choosing the leaders and policies that govern us (while growing in recent elections) is still relatively smaller than our capacity to affect change. We continue to lag behind our older counterparts in actual voter turnout on Election Day and both college and graduate students still face a number of barriers to voting.

As students, our primary focus is to succeed academically and to work towards obtaining a well-paying job after graduation. Many of us feel we don’t have the time, interest, or inertia to participate in many civic activities. We are often not the focus of political campaigns, and the media seldom directly addresses our issues.  Many of us turn 18 while away at school and therefore do not have the benefit of a parent or teacher who can help walk us through the voter registration process once we’re in college.

As President Obama noted in his acceptance speech this past November, “we have to fix that.” As students we know all too well what the “that” is.  It’s the difficulties we face when trying to register to vote in our college communities because of stringent residency requirements; it’s the inability to vote on any day other than the second Tuesday in November between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. (if we’re lucky); it’s the long lines we wait in at our campuses to vote; and it’s the inability to use our student ID’s as photo identification at the polls in some states.

Luckily, Congress has taken steps to address these issues faced not only by young voters, but also by many Americans across the country. Since the start of the new year, members of Congress have introduced a number of new bills aimed at fixing the problem addressed by President Obama, including the following:

  • Rep. John Lewis reintroduced the Voter Empowerment Act to modernize our voter registration system by automatically updating a registered voter’s information upon moving or changing his or her name; providing same-day registration opportunities; among other changes.
  • Sen. Barbara Boxer of California introduced S. 58, “a bill to amend the Help American Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) to ensure that voters in elections for federal office do not wait in long lines in order to vote.”
  • Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota introduced H.R. 280,“Same Day Registration Act of 2013,” which would also amend HAVA to require states to provide election-day registration.
  • Rep. George Miller of California introduced H.R. 50, the “Streamlined and Improved Methods at Polling Locations and Early (SIMPLE) Voting Act of 2013,” which would amend HAVA to allow for minimum early voting requirements of 15 days and which promotes measures to prevent unreasonable waiting times for voters.
  • Furthermore, Rep. Gerald Connolly introduced H.R. 97, the “Fair, Accurate, Secure, and Timely Voting (FAST) Act,” which encourages states to invest in initiatives and technology that would expedite voting at the polls.

These are encouraging measures, but we as students can also help break down the barriers that prevent us from voting.

First and foremost—we must register to vote. Whether you prefer registering to vote in the town where your parents or guardians live, or in your college community, registering to vote is the crucial first step in civic engagement. Don’t know how to go about the process? Visit the website for your state’s secretary of state or state board of elections to find information on how, where, and when you can register to vote.

Remember, in most cases you must submit your voter registration forms by 15 to 30 days before Election Day. Also, under the Higher Education Act of 1998, colleges and universities are required to make a “good faith effort” to distribute voter registration forms to all students. Therefore, you may only need to go as far as your dorm room lobby to pick up a registration form.

The second, and most important, step is to go out and vote in all elections, and to encourage your friends to do the same. A total of 14 states (CT, HI, IN, IA, KY, ME, MD, MS, NE, NC, OH, VA, VT and WV) allow 17 year-olds to vote in primaries if they will turn 18 by the time of the general election.

Finally, because election administration is in the hands of state and local elected officials, write to your local and state representatives asking them to remove barriers to student voting. Encourage these elected officials to pass laws providing for early voting, the acceptance of student IDs as a form of photo identification, and more liberal residency requirements that allow students to freely choose whether to register to vote either where their parents/guardians live or where they attend college.

Voting rights are important, especially to us as young voters, because voting is the primary way that we can impact our government and hold our elected representatives accountable. We cannot expect our issues to be addressed unless we exercise our most fundamental political right.

Corey Peterson is a second-year law student at American University’s Washington College of Law. She joins Project Vote as legal intern for spring 2013.



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