By: Sylvanna Gross
Historically, young adults have a low voter turnout. They are less likely to have a driver’s license, less likely to be contacted by politicians, and less likely to have vehicles. Yet, the number of college students casting ballots doubled between 2014 and 2018. That translates to a 40.3% national student voting rate, up from 19.3% in 2014. The turnout rate is even more incredible considering the numbers compare midterm election results, and the 2018 voting rate is close to that of the last two presidential election rates of 47.6% in 2012 and 50.9% in 2016.
In response to the voting turnout, where college students seemed to skew more liberal, Republican politicians started “throwing up roadblocks” to prevent students from entering voting booths. To counteract the political tactics meant to restrict student votes, Democrats began “orchestrating an expansion of voting rights.”
One partisan effort is New York’s S.B. S4658. The bill provides that “whenever a contiguous property of a college or university contains three hundred or more registrants, the polling place designated for such election district shall be on such contiguous property or at a location approved by the college or university.” In Symm v. U.S., the Supreme Court affirmed the right of all college students to vote in their campus communities, but left open the question if students have a guaranteed right to vote on campus. Regardless, there is some precedent that if you live in a state while attending school in that state, you may also register to vote in that state. Interestingly, there was some litigation in New Hampshire regarding this issue of students’ right to vote in the state they are domiciled. The New Hampshire Supreme Court, however, struck down the bill that would limit a student’s choice to use their college campus for domicile purposes.
New York’s bill would lead to having poll locations on campuses, which would decrease barriers to voting for the younger generation as college students may lack transportation to reach polling locations, resources to understand where they should be voting, and other related issues.
As state law governs where polling places can be located, New York local officials may designate polling locations. Five states—California, Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, and Wyoming—already either require or encourage polling locations to be on campuses. New York requires public school buildings to be made available as polling places, but S4658 will expand polling locations by including private campuses within the scope of potential required polling places.
The Senate passed the bill on June 7, 2021, in a 43-20 split directly down party lines and it currently sits in the Assembly’s election law committee. Of note, there have been versions of this bill introduced sporadically since 2009.
The current bill latches onto contiguity to ensure the State is required to provide polling access on a campus within a district. The bill aims to distinguish residential campuses in which students form a distinct community so that they will have ensured polling access. This bill will not, most likely, touch on campuses that are nonresidential or have distinct and spread-out community groups. Essentially, the bill requires that if a drawn district contains a substantial number of students within a contiguous district, then the polling place must be within that property or some approved location. Ostensibly, this should mean if the bill were to pass the Assembly, that college students could be guaranteed a polling location that is more likely to be accessible than not.
New York’s election laws directed at students are already formidable as the state requires the State University system to develop a program to provide all students with voter registration applications at the beginning of each year and at critical times during a presidential election year. If some version of S4658 were to be passed, it would bolster the already critical work being done to enhance college student access to the polls.