Meredith Decker

December 13, 2007

As one of the longest primary seasons in history draws to a close, a major focus of the presidential campaigns’ get-out-the-vote efforts in Iowa has turned to an unlikely demographic: college students. For the past two weeks, there has been a high-profile discussion about where students ought to vote–in their hometowns and home states or in the cities and states in which they live during college. While the issue rarely surfaces as a topic of national debate, the question is anything but new. In fact, as many Iowans tell it, the issue of student voting in Iowa is just about as old as the Twenty-Sixth Amendment.

The recent dust up over student voting started when influential Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen pointed out that Barack Obama’s campaign had been urging out-of-state students to return to their college campuses to participate in the January 3 caucuses, which fall during most college students’ winter vacations. Yepsen accused the Illinois senator of trying to transform Iowa’s primary into an “Illinois caucus.” In a speech at Grinnell College last Tuesday, Obama responded by telling students not to “let somebody tell you that you are not part of this process–because your future is at stake, and America’s future is at stake.” Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton took a different approach: She called the caucuses “a process for Iowans,” and argued that the Iowa primary “needs to be all about Iowa and people who live here, people who pay taxes here.”

Clinton’s comments, paired with a similar remark from Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, drew sharp attacks from online commentators and youth vote advocates. Jane Fleming Kleeb, executive director of the Young Voter PAC, called the comments a “thinly veiled” attack on “the tens of thousands of students studying at any of the dozens of colleges and universities throughout the state.” Kleeb also noted that young people will make up “30 percent of the electorate in just a few years,” and that “ignoring them or saying they should stay home is at a candidate’s–and frankly, our country’s–peril.” Future Majority blogger Michael Connery argued that instead of “erecting more barriers to participation, campaigns and the media should be working to reduce those barriers. Shame on them for doing otherwise.”

Although the Clinton campaign has since revised its position–Clinton Communications Director Howard Wolfson said the campaign believes “that every Iowan and every student who is eligible to caucus in Iowa should do so”–Clinton’s original argument has resonated with some Iowans. Those who oppose out-of-state student voting rest their arguments on two points: that students don’t pay taxes, and that they vote in ways that oftentimes contradict the “permanent” population’s interest.

Atul Nakhasi, president of the University of Iowa College Democrats, counters these arguments by noting that students do, in fact, pay taxes, albeit indirectly. Students who move to Iowa for school pay sales taxes and, directly or indirectly, property taxes if they live off-campus. Many students also work and thus can be subject to Iowa state income taxes. Don Smith, chairman of the Poweshiek County Democrats, argues that taxes shouldn’t even factor in to the decision of where an individual votes. “This is a 19th century argument,” Smith said. “Citizens don’t have to pay taxes in order to vote.”

But the issue isn’t only about taxes. Some residents believe out-of-state college students have altered the course of smaller-scale general elections, and therefore should be forced to vote in their hometowns. “Students can sway a vote one way or another in a small town,” Grinnell Mayor Gordon Canfield said.

Lifetime Poweshiek County resident Harry Meek agrees that out-of-state students have the power to change the outcome of Iowa’s elections, and encourages students to vote in their hometowns. Meek, who says he usually votes for conservative candidates, believes students are not familiar with the issues that affect his county’s residents.

The town of Grinnell and the surrounding Poweshiek County are home to Grinnell College, which is known to be a politically active–and progressive–campus. In 2006, for example, opponent Danny Carroll and some Grinnell residents claimed Grinnell’s student population tipped the vote for progressive Iowa House candidate Eric Palmer, who unseated conservative incumbent Danny Carroll in an election that was decided by 691 votes.

Even so, Smith doesn’t believe that students made that big of an impact in that election. “There is a marginal difference in outcome because of student voting,” Smith said. He also predicts that votes from out-of-state student will have a negligible impact on the January caucuses.

According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, 18 to 29 year-olds make up about 22 percent of Iowa’s population. Many out-of-state students at Iowa colleges and universities come to view themselves as Iowans. College students can and do legally claim their campuses as their residences, which gives them the right to vote and caucus there. “While students are living in Iowa, they are affected by its policies like any other citizen,” explained Alec Schierenbeck, co-leader of the Grinnell College Democrats, who hails from New York. “They should have a say in what affects them.”

Because Iowa voting laws allow same-day voter registration for the caucuses, some residents are concerned that out-of-state students will caucus in Iowa but vote in the general election in their respective home states. Nakhasi believes those concerns are unwarranted. “They live at their colleges for a greater part of the year than they live at home,” he said. This is why Nakhasi says he encourages students to “do their duty as citizens and become a part of the political process and community by voting in Iowa.”

Iowa Secretary of State Michael Mauro, Iowa Public Interest Research Group, and Rock the Vote are all asking Iowa college students to pledge to caucus, regardless of whether Iowa is their home state. Historically, caucus turnout among young people has been low. In 2004, an Edison/Mitofsky exit poll put 17-29 year-olds as 17 percent of caucus attendees. This was an eight-point increase over the nine percent of eligible young voters who turned out for the 2000 caucuses. Nationally, 47 percent of 18- to 24 year-olds voted during the 2004 general election, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. About 64 percent of citizens 18 and over voted in that election.

Student caucusing is not only an issue for progressives. Ron Paul, touted by his supporters as the only true libertarian candidate, is encouraging all eligible Iowa college students to caucus. “Students, and other disenfranchised people, are important to us,” said John Zambenini, Paul’s Communications Coordinator in Iowa. “They should be included in the political process because they are Iowa citizens.”

Iowa State University student Jacob Bofferding took this message to heart. He and some of his fellow students plan to return from Minnesota in January to caucus for Republican candidates, because, he said, “This is a great opportunity to support a candidate for students living in Iowa.”

Some campaigns and get-out-the-vote groups may be banking on students to return to caucus in droves and participate in the political process. While no one is willing to predict exactly how many students will participate in Iowa’s primary come January, there’s no doubt that some politically engaged out-of-state students like Bofferding and Schierenbeck plan to exercise their right to caucus in Iowa. The real question is how many students will return to caucus, and what their effect might be.

Meredith Decker is a sophomore at Grinnell College, where she works on the student get-out-the-vote effort.