Suppressing Students’ Right to Vote

In December of 2007, The New York Times’ Board Blog featured an expression of outrage about a particular form of “voter suppression” — attempts to prevent students from voting. The prototypical incident they cited came from Georgia Southern University, where a local citizens’ group began challenging student voter registrations after something close to 2000 students were registered in a campus voter registration drive. Although the genesis of this activity appears to have been a concern about students voting in local elections — which the editorialist characterized as “local officials who want to keep a tight grip on political power” — both the Times and much of the commentary on the piece extrapolated that into a more nefarious — and partisan, since it is of course Republicans who despise representative Democracy and who want to prevent students from voting for Democrats — plot to rig the presidential and congressional elections.

I submitted my own commentary in which I made the point, I thought reasonably, that students rarely have either ties to or particular interests in the local community surrounding their schools, nor, generally, any plans to remain in those communities after graduation; that they therefore have neither any particular knowledge about local issues and candidates nor any particular responsibility for living with or paying for the consequences of the local policies they vote for; and that, therefore, it is not unreasonable for local citizens to want to be free to choose their own local governmental arrangements without interference from this large and transient population.

The responses from others to my comments were so hostile — and I thought assumed an intent on my part so far beyond what I had said — that I felt a need to submit a second, much longer and more detailed defense of my position.

Here is a link to the editorial and the entire commentary stream (at least until it falls off the Times’ queue).

Below I’ve reproduced my commentary, with some selected excerpts from others about what I’d written to put my second post in context.

18 December 2007

Harassing or otherwise hindering legitimate voters is intolerable but I can certainly understand the desire, and it has nothing to do with wanting to “keep a tight grip on local political power”.

College students live, for the most part, in a protective bubble of academic interests and theoretical concerns, aware of obsessions national and international but largely insulated from the day to day struggles outside the confines of campus and ignorant of local issues except as they impact the university.

Anyone who has lived in a community with a large student population can tell you that they are admirably idealistic and will reflexively support any and all expensive or intrusive solutions to local problems that they judge to be of paramount concern. Unfortunately, their insulation from the community distorts their perspective on such judgments; and the fact that their relative poverty and short tenure means they will never live with the consequences of supporting such solutions, either monetarily or socially, blinds them to the tradeoffs involved.

In short, students learn their lessons about politics at the expense of the locals. They vote their ideals with no need to consider costs, free to congratulate themselves on their virtue and walk away from their mistakes when they graduate — while those left behind must live with the long-term consequences.

18-23 December 2007

Excerpts from comments posted by others:

So your argument is that students shouldn’t get to vote because they won’t vote the way you think they should?

Shorter Augustus Lowell: People who are not exactly like me should not be allowed to vote.

Following his argument to its logical conclusion, no doubt Mr. Lowell is opposed to any kind of absentee ballot, including those given to members of the armed services.

Although individual college students are transient, the yearly flow of college students is constant.  The interests of college graduates are likely to match the interests of current college students, and the interests of college students is likely to match the interests of future students closely.  Insofar as college student population is corporately constant, college students — in general — have a legitimate interest in determining their government.

My actual view on this matter is that the issue is generational.  Older generations, so far as they have some power, would like to discourage younger generations from being politically active.

23 December 2007

I know this is supposed to be a forum for commentary, not debate, but my original post was apparently either insufficiently clear about my intended point or woefully misinterpreted by some who would read extremism into even the most modest declarations. Hence I feel the need to clarify.

First, I never suggested that college students should be denied the opportunity to vote. I merely pointed out that those who didn’t wish them to vote on local — to be differentiated from state or federal — matters had a legitimate point of view and honorable intent, and that their point of view and intent should not be dismissed as a mere power grab. I spent four years at a prep school and four years at a university. It is geographically true to say that I was a “resident” of the towns in which those schools operated but it would be a stretch of the truth to claim that I was, in any but the most casual sense, a “citizen” of those towns. It would be much more accurate, of myself and of most students at such institutions, to say that I was a citizen of the school: that is where my knowledge and interest lay; my knowledge and interest in the wider community surrounding the school was marginal at best. It would make as much sense to claim that citizens of Europe or Asia or South America have an interest and rights in American elections — because American economic and foreign policy can have a dramatic if indirect effect on them — as it does to claim that students at a college or university have an interest and rights in local elections in the towns surrounding them. If voting rights for students encompassed only state-wide or national elections there would be no issue. But it is not unreasonable to be uncomfortable with the fact that the fate of schools for your children, and of land-use and economic development policies for your livelihood, and of broader taxing and spending policies encompassing all the routine functions of government that affect your daily life, are largely under the control of a transient population with no real stake in either the policies themselves or the costs of implementing them. That may not be the case in large cities like New York or Boston, where the college population is a reasonably small fraction of the eligible voters. But, in small towns dominated by a large university, it is an accurate description.

Second, students have, as an alternative to declaring local residency during their matriculation, the same option for retaining the franchise as soldiers and others who are temporarily away from their homes: the absentee ballot. It makes a great deal of sense for students to vote in the elections of their home towns, places where they grew up and maintain ties with family and friends and where they spend the portion of the year in which they are not immersed in academic concerns. Thus, ineligibility for voting rights in the towns surrounding their schools would make exercising their franchise inconvenient — as inconvenient and no more so as for anyone else temporarily away from home — not impossible. As a student, that is what I chose to do and I was not in any sense disenfranchised by the process.

Third, even accepting — as I do — that students have a right to vote in local elections, that doesn’t mean they should. Rights come with responsibilities; and it seems to me that one responsibility associated with voting is that you do so in a way that respects the principle of self-determination, of government by the consent of the governed. After I left college and entered the military, my parents moved away from the town in which I had grown up. Since it was clear by then that I had no intention of moving back there and that the last of my close ties to the community had dissipated, I changed my residency from there to the town outside the base where I was stationed and, for the next four years, I voted locally. But it was also clear to me that, as much as I had no particular ties to my old home town, I also had no particular ties to my new community. Whether or not I stayed in the military or resigned when my obligation expired, I had no plans to stay where I was and my community focus was on the base, not in the town. So, although I voted in every national election, as a matter of principle I left the state and local ballots I was provided blank — not because I didn’t care about the issues involved in those elections but because it was not my place to impose my preferences, the preferences of a transient and an outsider who would neither live with the consequences nor pay for them, on those whose ties to the community were persistent and meaningful. If residents of university towns could count on students to show the same kind of deference, their voting rights would not be an issue of contention.

(C) Copyright 2007, Augustus P. Lowell

Leave a Reply