Laying a Foundation For Voting

Marvin Krislov // Published April 12, 2008 in The Washington Post

A little-noticed effort to help enfranchise college students for the Ohioprimary elections may have a significant effect in that battleground state and nationwide when Americans go to the polls in November.

At the urging of students from Oberlin College and other Ohio schools, Jennifer Brunner, Ohio's secretary of state, ruled in late February that colleges and universities can issue utility bills to their students, enabling them to fulfill the state's voter residency requirements. The bills, which require no action, reflect payment for services such as telephone, Internet access and electricity, already covered by the students' tuition and fees.

Some critics have assailed that decision, claiming it allows transient "outsiders" who did not grow up in a given community, do not pay local taxes and may leave upon graduation to affect the outcome of elections. Those views contradict our Constitution and the facts.

Voting in America is not restricted to taxpayers or property owners. Federal law guarantees college students the right to vote where they go to school. Many students have jobs and pay state and local taxes on their earnings. All students pay the taxes applied to goods and services, such as sales taxes. And in our highly mobile society, millions of voters do not live where they grew up. Denying such people the right to vote, which even the homeless are guaranteed, would be unthinkable.

Providing students with utility bills to prove residency does not circumvent the law. They still must comply with state residency requirements or vote absentee. But the utility bills make it easier for students to exercise their right to vote, and that's an encouraging sign not just for Ohio but for American democracy.

The health of a democracy depends on active, informed voters. Numerous studies have shown that young people who vote are likely to become lifelong voters. So a young person's first experience of voting should be welcoming, not frustrating.

Ohio colleges that have not already done so should consider providing the appropriate documentation so their students can vote. Other states with strict proof-of-residency requirements should emulate Ohio's willingness to help young voters participate.

That would be a welcome change from past practices that discouraged the youth vote. College students often have difficulty proving residency because they move during their time on campus, many every year, often from one dormitory to another. Many students also receive postal service via a campus mailroom, so they have no street address. Because some states require an exact match between the student's residence and the form of voter identification, a student might need to obtain an amended driver's license in the short period between the start of school and the deadline for voter registration. Finding the time and transportation to do that can be a problem.

These requirements, including Ohio's, have the effect of inhibiting student voting. In the 2004 elections, that chilling effect was egregious in some Ohio college towns. Students in Oberlin and in Gambier, where Kenyon College is located, stood in line for up to 14 hours at the polls because of a dearth of voting machines. Some grew frustrated and went home without voting. Many of those who eventually reached the polling booths had to cast provisional ballots because of residency issues.

Such issues still exist in Ohio and elsewhere. In Ohio's primary election on March 4, for example, some students in Oberlin waited in line for hours because the supply of ballots ran out. Given the heavy youth turnout so far in the 2008 primaries across the country, election officials should make sure that such shortages do not recur in November.

The writer is president of Oberlin College.