WASHINGTON -- In 2004 Gambier, Ohio became to many a textbook example of how not to equip a voting station near a college campus. Just two voting machines were made available for approximately 1,300 students from nearby Kenyon College, leading to waits as long as 11 hours. “I saw it as something that fundamentally showed democracy wasn’t working,” said Matthew Segal, executive director of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment, a Washington-based advocacy group. Segal, a Kenyon alum who voted at Gambier, added, “I truly believe a ten-hour line is a civil rights violation.”
With youth voter turnout this November expected to build on gains reached during the 2004 presidential race, watchdogs are increasingly concerned about the potential for another Kenyon.
In 2004, turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds rose 11 percentage points above rates from 2000, and climbed 9 percentage points among 18- to 29-year-olds. During this year’s primaries and caucuses, youth voter turnout doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled in some states, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
Poorly-equipped voting stations were just one of the issues covered Thursday during a hearing on Capitol Hill about ensuring the rights of college students to vote. Legislators and witnesses at the House Administration Committee hearing also examined the impact of laws in several states requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls, and murky registration and voting guidelines.
“A problematic or disillusioning first-time voting experience can shape an individual’s voting participation in all future elections,” said witness Neil Albrecht, assistant director of the Milwaukee election commission..
One potential solution to such issues is the Student Voter Act of 2008, which would designate all institutions of higher education that receive federal financing as registration agencies. The bill, introduced in July by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., is modeled after the “Motor Voter” law of 1993, which required state motor vehicle agencies to also offer voter registration services.
“The need for this bipartisan bill is clear,” Schakowsky said Thursday in testimony to the House panel.
Supporting the congresswoman was Catherine McLaughlin, executive director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University.
“Having a presence at a mandatory academic registration for freshmen allows us to get hundreds of students registering for classes to also register to vote and fill out mobilization ‘contact’ cards so we can follow up,” McLaughlin told the oversight hearing.
With Ohio Secretary of State spokesman Kevin Kidder estimating turnout in November as high as 80 percent in November, up from 72 percent in 2004, Kenyon’s local election board is working to avoid a repeat of the last general election.
Rita Yarman, a director for the Knox County Board of Elections, said her Kenyon precinct was caught off guard in 2004. Students “had voted before,” she said, “but not in such numbers.”
Kenyon’s voting station now has 10 machines available, Yarman said, up from two in 2004. More stations are also being set up to sign in voters, she said. Just one was available four years ago. And since Ohio now allows residents to cast an absentee ballot for any reason, Yarman is urging as many people as possible to vote early so as to cut down on waits.
Another concern for collegians: residency requirements.
Voting centers in several states require individuals to present a photo I.D. to vote. The problem for college voters is that the address on their I.D.’s is often not their campus residency, thus preventing them from voting. In Orange County, North Carolina, Tracy Reams, director of the Board of Elections, said she her county will be able to avoid that obstacle this year because nearby University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is providing a list of all campus residents, which Reams in turn will distribute to poll workers. So long as a student has I.D. and is on the list, he or she can vote in Orange County.
Reams is also gearing up for a higher turnout by extending the early voting period prior to election day, as well as voting station hours on Nov. 4. Additionally, she is bringing on an extra 25 to 30 employees to man the polls.
“We’re pretty much going to double our staff,” Reams said.
In battleground states, officials are taking even more extensive measures. In Ohio, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner has told colleges and universities that they may issue utility bills to students, thus enabling them to meet the state’s proof of voter residency requirements. In Michigan, for instance, the secretary of state’s office has created mobile branches to visit the state’s 15 public universities for the purpose of registering students.