February 20, 2008
We may be on the brink of the country’s largest voter disenfranchisement initiative in modern American history. The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in Crawford v. Marion County Board of Elections, a case which could determine thousands of votes come November 2008. While some are attacking the law as a xenophobic attempt to push illegal immigrants out of the U.S. political process–which it is–the statute could also end up hampering the ability of American college students to vote.
In a year when youth voting is reshaping the political landscape, you might expect state and federal governments to be promoting laws that make it easier, not harder, for young Americans to head to the polls. Lawmakers in Indiana aren’t. The law now being challenged in the Supreme Court, which was passed in 2005 by Indiana’s legislature, requires residents to present valid photo identification to vote. While the statute is aimed at keeping illegal immigrants away from the polls, it also carries with it some unexpected implications for college-age voters. Students who do not claim permanent residency in Indiana cannot vote in the state’s elections, even though most full-time college students spend at least nine months out of the year on campus. If out-of-state students who attend school at any of Indiana’s colleges or universities want to vote, they currently have two options: vote absentee in their home state, or change their permanent residency.
There are problems with both options. For college students, voting absentee isn’t always easy because, to be counted, most absentee ballots need to arrive no less than eight days before Election Day. At some universities, campus mail systems are notoriously slow or unreliable, and while planning ahead sounds good in theory, sometimes it’s difficult for college students to do. Before the voter ID law hit the books, students could vote in Indiana if they could produce a utility bill as proof of residency, but many students don’t pay utility bills directly since they live on campus and these fees are included the university’s room and board costs. A paycheck is also acceptable sometimes, but not all students work. But the issue isn’t just a question of convenience; it’s about the government’s role in promoting its elections. Should the government be making it easier or harder for its citizens to vote? Should states be erecting cumbersome barriers for a certain group of Americans to cast ballots? Out-of-state students also have the option of switching their permanent residency, of course, but that can come at a high cost: These students risk losing scholarships from their home states, and, since health insurance is often tied to one’s residency, rising healthcare costs.