It’s Time For Congress To Help Students Vote
APR 18, 2018 @ 08:09 AM
Clarissa Unger, Director of Civic Engagement at Young Invincibles, is a guest contributor for the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge
There are certain experiences we know are part and parcel of going to college: navigating registration for classes, pushing through late nights of studying, aiming to ace an exam. But what about voting? There are over 20 million students in our country, the vast majority of whom are of voting age. They are learning skills to advance their futures—to have better employment prospects and higher earning potential—but what about skills to be a civically engaged citizen? Today, a new bill introduced in the U.S. House and Senate, the Help Students Vote Act, aims to ensure institutions of higher education are making voting a part of every student’s college experience.
Historically, young adults have voted at the lowest rates of any age group in national elections. We’ve all heard the misconception that this is because young people don’t care about their representatives or about voting. We hear much less discussion about the unique barriers that young people, especially students, face in voting, often for the first time. In fact, research shows that those young adults who do register to vote, vote at the similar rates as older groups. It is time the conversation focus on making sure more young people have the information they need to make their interest in voting a reality.
Higher education institutions can serve as powerful incubators for civic engagement. Recent research out of Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education found there was a three percentage point increase in turnout among student voters in the 2016 presidential election compared with the election in 2012. This improvement speaks to the important role colleges, universities and on-campus communities play in helping young people overcome barriers to voting.
The relationship between higher education institutions and increased civic engagement is no secret to lawmakers. After World War II, President Truman appointed a Commission on Higher Education to study and determine the role of colleges and universities in supporting our democracy. The Commission found that higher education was central to developing informed and responsible citizens. In the 1998 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the sweeping package of laws that govern our higher education system, lawmakers included a new provision that requires schools to make “a good faith effort” to distribute voter registration forms. Now, two decades later, that provision has garnered new attention. In December, House Republicans put forward a new version of the Higher Education Act, called the PROSPER Act, that would weaken this provision. The Help Students Vote Act, sponsored by Senator Cory Booker and Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, will not only ensure the provision is maintained but will make it stronger by adding much-needed clarity and support for deeper engagement around voter registration.
Under the bill, colleges and universities are expected to email students twice a year, and no less than 30 days before voter registration deadlines for federal and state elections, with links to voter registration information. Additionally, schools would designate a “campus vote coordinator” to answer questions from students. It would also close the current loophole in the provision that exempts colleges and universities in certain states and would require every campus in every state to comply. Lastly, the act would create a system of accountability to ensure schools abide by the provision, while opening up additional grant funding to institutions that greatly exceed the requirements.
I help lead a coalition called Students Learn Students Vote, which is dedicated to helping higher education institutions foster civically engaged students and make their campuses more voter friendly. I’ve talked to some of our coalition partners about what they think of the Help Students Vote Act. A student told me that this bill empowers college administrators to take an active leadership role in developing civic responsibility in their students. A campus administrator told me that a “good faith effort” simply isn’t enough, and that this act would be a small step in the direction of the “great faith effort” all schools should be giving toward enabling more students to vote.
What state you live in and what college you attend shouldn’t determine the civic education you receive and whether your campus ensures you have the information you need to register and vote. Wondering which address to use, where your nearest polling place is, or how much time you have to register shouldn’t be the start and end of your voting experience. It is time to make sure that all students get the information they need to participate in our democracy at a time when they face unique barriers to entering the process.
Use our digital tool to ask your members of Congress to support the Help Students Vote Act. The more people express support, the more likely Congress will be to pass this bill and strengthen the provision, rather than weaken it. We just can’t allow it to be weakened, because ultimately, our democracy works best when everyone has the information they need to participate. #StudentVote
Author: Clarissa Unger