It’s Time to Help Students Vote in a Pandemic

While colleges must avoid partisanship, they should do everything they can to ensure that students get all the information they need to participate in the upcoming election, writes Gary Orfield.

August 19, 2020
 
 
Istock.com/m_pavlov

A chaotic year of plague, social unrest and significant change on campuses is also a year of extremely important national and state elections. While colleges must avoid partisanship, they should do everything they can to make certain that students (and staff) get all the information they need to participate and have their opinions registered and their votes counted.

This election year, students are going to miss the excitement of political meetings, speeches, debates and the like on their campuses, but they must at least be able to vote. Unfortunately, however, our traditional registration and voting systems are designed for people who live and vote from the same place over the years, which is one of the reasons why students traditionally vote at much lower levels than older people. (And that, in turn, is one of the reasons why their needs are taken less seriously as taxes on adults are cut and tuitions soar due to drops in state funding.)

Students often are not registered at their current address and do not know when and how to obtain absentee ballots, which are readily available in some states and quite limited elsewhere. Many students also have no idea where they will actually be living when Election Day comes, since campuses may open up and then shut down if there is a second wave of the pandemic in the fall. Many students also have underlying health conditions that make in-person voting very risky during the pandemic. But they should not be denied the right to vote.

In the last presidential election, more than half of college students did not vote. An estimated 48 percent of students voted compared to more than 70 percent of senior citizens -- a serious imbalance that ultimately means less attention to the needs of students and their colleges. Had more students voted, they might have changed the outcomes in some of our key swing states.

As a professor, I know that many of our students are deeply concerned about issues shaping the future and think that they should have more of a voice about those issues. They’ve often participated in the enormous waves of protests this year, but elections are the way that all citizens can express their views through the secret ballot and exercise real power.

I urge all college presidents, chancellors, boards of trustees and faculty leaders to take specific positive actions to foster full student access to voting. Individual professors could be very helpful in informing and reminding students of the key requirements, dates and deadlines. Providing information and guidance about voting in no way drags campuses into partisan politics because it has no connection with any specific party. It is simply about empowering students to exercise their democratic rights.

In fact, while our classrooms must be protected from partisan activity, our colleges were designed in part to foster an informed democracy. Nonpartisan support for student voting is simply an effort to make real the rights of all students, who deserve to be heard in our democracy.

Even in more typical election years, students often get too absorbed in their studies to keep track of key deadlines -- like professors, they tend to get busy, become absentminded and forget. In addition, absentee voting is complex in a number of our states. And many students change addresses and do not inform the registration offices in time to make official changes.

But certain features of our electoral system are worse than normal this year in the midst of the pandemic. Some students will be unpredictably moving this fall and perhaps again before Nov. 3 to or from their campuses. If we are not organized to help them, many students will lose their ability to vote.

A Series of Notifications

Colleges and universities lack many things that would be valuable in encouraging political participation this fall, but they have one feature that is both absolutely crucial and virtually free: they can use their existing communication systems to send students a sequence of alerts that educate and assist them in voting. A series of notifications could provide urgent voting information, deadlines and reminders (which all professors know are necessary).

  • The first notification at the beginning of the fall should spell out for students the process, the deadlines and the critical first step of registering or checking their registration. (While that’s not essential in states where registration takes place on voting day, it’s still a good idea anyway and essential for mail voting.)
  • The second notification, in mid-September, should repeat the registration information and underline the deadlines. In some states, those will occur about a month before the Nov. 3 election. It should also list the requirements for obtaining ballots for mail-in voting. The relevant online forms from the state election office should be attached.
  • The third notification should be in early October and should provide information and connections to forms for applicants to vote by mail. In states where postage is required, colleges should provide it or make it easily available for purchase, as students send few snail-mail letters.
  • The fourth notification should come in mid-October and remind students about the Nov. 3 election, tell them it is time to mail their ballots since serious Post Office delays and confusion are likely, and give information for polling places near the campus and student residences. Such location information could be sent again Nov. 2.

Each campus could provide an information number for the local board of elections and, if your campus has it, the campus government relations or community relations office, giving an opportunity for students and faculty members to raise questions and concerns about the adequacy of polling places. Campuses should collaborate with local voting officials if more facilities are needed for in-person voting.

Campuses might also consider going beyond all this and providing students access to basic campaign information. They could ask the political science department to develop an informative email and a website that would connect students to the campaign websites of the major national, state and local candidates of all parties on the ballot and to free media sites that cover the campaigns. That would enable students to get up-to-date on the candidates’ positions and party platforms and, thus, make more informed judgments. In some states with important ballot propositions, such connections could be especially helpful.

All of this would have a negligible cost and would treat all political parties and candidates equally. It would be good to also send copies of these emails to campus staff members, particularly those who have recently joined or have moved.

Campuses should use their information system to remind students each month about the deadlines and the requirements they need to meet to vote. Those with significant out-of-state enrollments should offer a connection to a nonpartisan national information website, such as the U.S. Election Assistance Commission or USA.gov/voting. There is no reason a student living away from home should lose his or her rights.

I know our higher education leaders strongly support the democratic rights and responsibilities of their students. They know it is important for voices from their colleges to be heard in the state capitals and Washington as both students and institutions struggle in these exceptionally difficult times. I hope that campus leaders take these simple and easy steps to help students participate fully in this extraordinary year.

Bio

Gary Orfield is Distinguished Research Professor of Education, Law, Political Science and Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

We are retiring comments and introducing Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

 

Topics

Back to Top