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Posts tagged ‘disenfranchisement’

Why Aren’t College Students More Invested in College Town Politics?

iStock_000015650351XSmallThe traditional idea of a college town is one that’s truly built up around the college. These towns have bars and restaurants packed with students. They root for the school’s sports teams, especially the local hotels and motels who fill up with visiting family during games and graduations. The campus is the most identifiable landmark in town. It’s the largest contributor to the local economy. It’s in the identity of the town.

Many of the largest state schools are in these sorts of towns. The students of Arizona State University makes up over a third of the population of Tempe. University of Georgia students a little shy of 30% of Athens’ population. Virginia Tech is in Blacksburg, a city of 42,620. Total number of students at VA Tech? 31,087. Over 70%.

Yet in most cases, the student population is considered essentially transient, and that has a big impact on both the way these towns think about the students as members of the community and the way the students view themselves.

Berkeley, CA, realizing the size and impact of UC Berkeley (about 32% of city population), recently approved a measure that would let the school be considered its own voting district. It was an amazing act of faith in the judgment of the student body and their say in local politics. A similar proposal was suggested regarding the University of Vermont (about 27% of Burlington), but was dismissed by the local government. The Burlington city government simply assumed that students would not be interested enough to get involved.

That assumption might not be as baseless as it sounds. UVM hasn’t been able to drum up enough enthusiasm among the student body. So what’s happening? Why would students pass up the opportunity for greater direct influence?

As politically involved as students can be, it’s rare to see that same passion applied to local politics. As far as I can tell, here are the biggest reasons why:

  • The student body is made up of lots of people from lots of different places. I went to a college outside of my home state, and probably around 80% of my friends were from out of state (or country) too. Our local politics were the decision made by the school itself. That’s what had a direct impact on our day-to-day lives. It didn’t feel like we moved into a community as much as we created a new community of people from around the country (or planet).
  • Local politics aren’t as flashy, dramatic, or interesting as national/international politics. Strike up a conversation about politics and it would usually be (at the time I was in college) about the Iraq War, abortion, or gun control. Either international relations or broad social issues. As students (especially at a liberal arts college), we were used to speaking about vague theoretical concepts of how things should be. We weren’t used to discussing practical issues like construction on the freeway or a tax hike on property owners. We had very little media exposure to city-level concerns, even in the media we created ourselves (like student newspapers).
  • Students don’t think of themselves as members of the community yet. It’s a little like the old question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We get so used to thinking of our education as the time before we start our “real” lives. Local politics don’t seem like something we can, or should, be a part of yet. College students have largely not yet been greeted as full adults, so on some level, they don’t see themselves as full adults.

If Burlington changes its mind and lets UVM become a district, I think it would the student interest would follow. Students would be more interested in local politics if they were invited to become more invested. But if the city/community doesn’t try to get the students involved, it’s unlikely they’ll bother.

Whether or not a city wants so many young people to have a more powerful voice is a different matter…


Are Students IDs Good Enough Proof to Vote?

McLovin's ID from "Superbad"

Quick quiz: How many forms of ID do you have?

Modified question: How many forms of ID do you have on you right now?

Once we exclude the passports, Social Security cards, birth certificates, and all those other documents that you usually just cram into that single, unsorted drawer of important papers that you never open, most of us only carry around a single form of ID.

For people who drive, it’s their driver’s licenses. For college students, it’s typically their student IDs, which most colleges demand that you carry at all times.

But that’s based on my experience. I grew up in Virginian suburbs where it’s impossible to get around without a car. What about college-age people who grew up in cities, where public transportation makes learning to drive mostly pointless? What about people who’re from a socio-economic background where getting a car while in their late-teens and early-twenties is impossible? Other than proving you’re old enough to buy cigarettes and alcohol, what’s the point in getting an ID?

A number of states — specifically Kansas, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin — are in the middle of legislative debates over what should be considered an acceptable form of ID. The anti-student ID group feels that non-government issued documentation is too easy to fake, so allowing student IDs is just an invitation to voter fraud. The pro-student ID group feels banning student IDs is going to disenfranchise young voters, particularly lower-income young voters who aren’t rushing out to get driver’s licenses as soon as they are of age.

There’s a lot that could be said about political motivations. Since the young and lower-income demographic tends to lean left, the Left is naturally the side complaining about disenfranchisement.  And just as predictably, the Right is the side claiming that this is really about preventing fraud. But nobody can have a reasonable debate when you just start throwing out accusations of motivation, so let’s throw that discussion out entirely.

Does voter fraud happen? Sure. But virtually never with people showing up at polls claiming they’re someone they aren’t. South Carolina’s State Election Commission ran a study of 900 suspicious votes credited to dead people. They only made it through 207 of the votes before they decided the study wasn’t worth continuing. 106 were clerical errors. 56 were people who weren’t, as it turned out, actually dead. 32 were caused by stray marks picked up by scanners. And 3 were absentee ballots cast by people who died before election day.

I can understand how jarring it seems requiring government-issued ID for college students to buy beer but not to vote. But take into account the absurd lengths college students will go in pursuit of beer. If only college students were that passionate about voting…

I am sympathetic to the idea of tightening up restrictions on voter ID… at least I can see where it’s coming from, but I think it’s ultimately overstating a problem. If voter fraud is an issue, banning student IDs is the equivalent of “duck and cover” to protect yourself from a nuclear blast. It’s not going to stop the problem, even if it makes you feel better. If someone is going to commit voter fraud, it’s going to be electronically. That’s a much more efficient means of screwing things up than spending all day waiting in polling lines with fraudulent IDs.

I can sympathize with the logic, even if I think it’s flawed, of the legislators in Kansas, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin. Florida, on the other hand, gets no such sympathy. Between the recent vote purge (comparing voting lists with DMV info and eliminating 100,000 people’s votes) and recent legislation against third-party voter registration groups, I have a lot of trouble giving that state the benefit of the doubt. That’s not just “duck and cover.” That’s blowing up the desk before the nuke gets the chance.


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