Thursday, February 1, 2007
Imagine that you're a college student who goes to City Hall in your college town to register to vote, but when the clerk sees your college mailing address he says, "Do you live in the dorms?" If you say yes, you could be told that you don't have the right to vote.
If Maine State Representative Gary Knight (R-Livermore Falls) has his way, that will soon be the case in Maine. On Jan. 31 Knight presented a bill to disenfranchise many college students, LD 203 , to the Maine Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs. The key clause reads: "A student is not a resident of a municipality where the student resides if the student lives in housing owned by an institution of learning while attending the institution unless the student lived in that municipality prior to attending the institution." In short, if you live in dorms, you cannot vote in your college town.
This bill would effectively disenfranchise many students, who often have trouble obtaining absentee ballots from their home districts. It would also privilege students who live off-campus over those who live on-campus in local politics, which is plainly undemocratic.
Waterville City Councilor Henry Beck (D), a longtime resident of Waterville, Maine, and a sophomore at Waterville's Colby College, feels strongly about the importance of voting. Beck points to the 2000 presidential elections as his "political coming of age," saying, "The world was changed by a handful of people whose rights were taken away" when they were disenfranchised in Florida. That election featured massive disenfranchisement when voters who happened to share the name of a convicted felon were incorrectly purged from voter rolls. Antiquated machines, which are more common in poorer counties, failed to register votes (hence the infamous hanging chads .) "That election was determined by who [was] allowed to vote," Beck added.
The bill's supporters claim that enfranchised college students are a threat to the taxpaying citizens of Maine who plan to stick around for longer than four years. In an interview with local newspaper the Kennebec Journal , Knight said, "I want these kids to become part of the political process. But I don't want them to determine who our governor is, and then head back to California or Michigan, or wherever they're from."
But voting rights advocates argue that "these kids" should be allowed to decide whether they feel more connected to the local politics of their home towns or their college homes. There are students in Maine who are on a first name basis with their local representatives, and follow local elections and ballot proposals closely. Of course that isn't true of all student voters, but, unfortunately, it isn't true of all voters in any age bracket. There is no legitimate reason that students should be prevented from making their own voting residency decisions. If you live, shop, and volunteer in a community, then you ought to be able to participate in its political process.
The mayor of Waterville, Paul LePage, agrees--sort of. In a public debate  before the Nov. 2006, he stressed the need for students to become "full" members of the community before voting, arguing, and "Voting is a responsibility, not a right."
But the United States constitution might have something to say about that. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from unequally applying laws. Violations of the clause are usually the result of a state denying one group of people the right to engage in an activity that others enjoy.
According to the NYU-affiliated Brennan Center for Justice , the Equal Protection Clause has been successfully invoked to strike down anti-student voting policies in Texas, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Voter suppression efforts, even ones that target short-term residents like college students, are generally considered violations.
Students and voting-rights activists have stepped up in Maine to call attention to LD 203. The Maine College Democrats  issued press releases yesterday, some of which resulted in stories on well-trafficked blogs like Daily Kos. The Maine affiliates of the League of Young Voters  held a rally outside the State House before the bill's presentation, and some of the activists spoke to the committee against the legislation.
Many local political junkies think the bill will have a difficult time even making it out of committee with an "ought to pass" recommendation. But, regardless of what happens to the bill, there are important lessons to learn from Knight's attempts to restrict student voting: Everyone should be familiar with their voting rights. There are powerful constitutional arguments to deflect attempts at voter disenfranchisement. And, most importantly, students are a targeted group. Maine is not the only state where there have been attempts to block students from voting. Anyone working on voter advocacy should understand the history of student voter suppression--and be prepared to fight back.
Allyson Rudolph is a senior philosophy major at Colby College. She has been involved in a great many political organizations on campus, including The League of Progressive Voters (the Waterville affiliate of the national League of Young Voters), the Movement for Global Justice, and the Maine College Action Network. She is also a Campus Progress representative .