When I was a student at Texas A&M University and active in politics there, I spent a lot of time on voter registration. Much of this effort was devoted to the community outside of the university, but my primary focus was on students at the university. And, although some people would contend that college students should register to vote from their hometowns, I strongly disagree. At the very least, students should be allowed to choose which location they prefer, but beyond that I believe there’s a strong case for students to register at their university location, unless they have a compelling reason to vote in their hometowns. And, on this first point, the Supreme Court agrees (Symm v. US, 1979).
I would take that one step further and argue that that college students should be actively encouraged to register to vote at their university location as opposed to their hometown because:
- Voting by absentee ballot is a pain in the ass and can act as a deterrent;
- Traveling home to vote is a much less likely scenario;
- Local politics at the university location are likely to more directly affect students than politics in their hometown;
- Many students will never again live full time in their childhood hometown; and,
- Students voting locally can be more effectively targeted by get out the vote drives.
As a demographic, young people traditionally have a very low voter turnout. So, anything that can be done to counter this trend (and engage young people in the civic process) should be encouraged.
This doesn’t meant that voter registration easy work (although I found it very rewarding). Although it is incredibly straightforward for someone to register him or herself to vote, it’s much more difficult to register someone else to vote. You have to be deputized by the local voter registrar, you have to verify the identity of each person you accept a voter registration card from, and you have to keep a log of the people you registered to vote. These problems are often compounded on a college campus, particularly when students are living in dorms and don’t know their physical address (as opposed to their mailing address). Despite the difficulties we had at Texas A&M University, these were nothing compared to the constant reports of problems I heard coming out of Prairie View A&M University, another member of the Texas A&M system, located about half way between Texas A&M University and Houston.
The difference was that Prairie View A&M is a historically black university. And, although student voting there was under constant attack, it was pretty clear what was really at play: thinly veiled racism. So, when I saw this article today in The New York Times about a voting rights case coming out of Prairie View A&M, I can’t say that I was terribly surprised:
PRAIRIE VIEW, Tex. — “Vote or Die,” exhorts the faded slogan on a roadway at Prairie View A&M University, where black students once marched for the right to vote here in the town where they attend school, on a former cotton plantation about 50 miles northwest of Houston.
The students won that battle in 2004, long after the United States Supreme Court supposedly decided the issue in 1979. But disputes over minority voting rights — along with accusations of election fraud — continue to rouse Prairie View, home to one of the nation’s leading historically black colleges, and other Texas locales.
“The cold war’s not over — they just moved the fence from Berlin to the Texas border,” said DeWayne Charleston, Waller County justice of the peace, who maintains that local officials failed to record hundreds of students whom he registered to vote in 2006. The federal Department of Justice and the Texas attorney general’s office say investigations are under way here, but will not give details.
In 2004, Oliver Kitzman, then the Waller County district attorney, challenged the students’ right to cast ballots here rather than in their home communities, although the Supreme Court had long ago decided they could. Students, claiming that the county’s white residents feared the voting power of the predominantly black 9,000-member student body, marched in protest, and Mr. Abbott wrote an opinion supporting them. Mr. Kitzman soon retired, and students continued to cast ballots here.
But other voting rights disputes have since erupted. Before the 2006 election, Judge Charleston said in an interview, he personally registered about 1,000 students. But on Election Day, he said, hundreds of them were turned away as not registered to vote. The registration cards were later found in county offices, he said.
Judge Charleston said he had also complained to federal and state officials that Waller County had denied Prairie View students convenient polling locations. Further, he told them that for the May 10 school board election, not only did district trustees use public money to issue a voter guide, the guide also gave short shift to two black candidates, Jemiah Richards and Charli Cooksey, both Prairie View students, who subsequently lost to incumbents.
This history of voter suppression goes back so far that the 1979 Supreme Court case referenced in the article (and cited by me above), Symm v. US, actually came out of Prairie View A&M as well!
Unfortunately, suppression of minority voters is a common occurrence–particularly in Republican-dominated areas. And, this year we’re going to need to be particularly vigilant, because due to the breakthrough candidacy of Barack Obama, African American voter turnout will be particularly high, and this will likely make some traditionally strong Republican districts unusually competitive. In response to this, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see suppression of minority voters on a scale not seen since the civil rights movement. Such events are truly poisonous for democracy, so if you see anything fishy going on, make sure you report it immediately!