Bill would require colleges to offer voter registration with course sign ups

Harrison Garfinkle // Published April 13, 2009 in The Daily Pennsylvanian

The Student VOTER Act would make colleges and universities "voter registration agencies" under the 1993 "Motor Voter" Law.

When Penn students sign up for classes next year, they may have to not only decide which courses to take, but also whether to register to vote in the next election.

That is the goal of the Student Voter Opportunity to Encourage Registration (VOTER) Act, introduced into Congress last month by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and U.S. Reps. Steven LaTourette (R-OH) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). If the VOTER Act is passed in Congress and signed into law, it would become mandatory for all colleges and universities that receive federal funds to offer voter registration to students when they sign up for classes.

The VOTER Act is an expansion of the 1993 Motor Voter Act, which requires the government to offer voter registration to citizens when they apply for a driver's license or public-assistance benefits.

"This bill would fulfill our organizational initiative trying to institutionalize voter registration by weaving voter registration into the fabric of the various institutions that people in this society are a part of," said Matthew Segal, executive director of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE).

Although SAVE presented a draft of the Student VOTER Act to Durbin, LaTourette and Schakowsky at the end of last summer, the expiration of the Congressional season required the bill be reintroduced into Congress this year.

"We are extremely confident that with the support of all the youth groups we've been able to get excited about the bill … that represent a constituency of well over one million young people, we'll get this bill passed," Segal said.

The bill already has the endorsement of over 20 leading youth organizations including Rock the Vote, the College Democrats of America and the United States Student Association.

The VOTER Act has gained widespread support in response to a 2004 report by The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement that found that 22 percent of 18- to 19-year-olds who did not vote did so because they missed the registration deadline. It also reported that an additional 10 percent of 18- to 19-year-olds who did not vote did not know how or where to register to vote.

"Our bill will simplify a lot of this confusion and also outsource the voter registration to an accountable institution like a college or university," Segal said. "This is something that just makes sense and is something that young people are particularly excited about."

Jeffrey Cooper, vice president of Penn's Office of Government and Community Affairs, said he believes that if passed, the bill would apply to Penn because the University receives federal funding from various sources.

But Penn Democrats President and College sophomore Jordan Levine said although the bill is a great achievement, he doesn't believe the bill will have much impact on the University.

"I don't think registration is a large issue on Penn's campus," Levine said. "Not only the Penn Dems, but Penn Leads the Vote and the College Republicans are extremely active on campus."

Segal said, however, that the VOTER Act could have a major impact on campuses where voter registration is not a big issue.

"Student groups can focus their effort on getting out the vote after people are registered and not necessarily have to put all their time and resources into getting people registered."