Some colleges and universities have opened their campuses to students, and others haven’t. Some that have opened have already closed. None that are open can be sure they still will be on Nov. 3 and students don’t really know where they will be, either.
This post analyzes the problem and offers some solutions. It was written by John Katzman and Fred Bernstein. Katzman is the founder and chief executive of Noodle Partners, who previously founded and ran the Princeton Review and 2U. Bernstein is a lawyer and writer.
By John S. Katzman and Fred Bernstein
There are 552,000 students enrolled in colleges in Michigan, a state where in 2016 the presidential election was decided by fewer than 11,000 votes. More than 44,000 of those students are enrolled at the University of Michigan, and many of them returned to campus this week.
But if that institution has to close before election day — a distinct possibility, given what has happened at schools like Notre Dame — students who registered to vote using their campus addresses may be out of luck. They may be hundreds of miles away from their polling places on the first Tuesday in November.
And even if these colleges and universities stay open through Thanksgiving, which is the current plan, no individual student can count on being able to vote on or near campus on Nov. 3. Students who become infected may have to — or may choose to — return home. Other students may be quarantined, and thus unable to get to a polling place. Still others will consider it imprudent to vote in person, based on infection rates in early November.
Michigan is just a microcosm. Altogether, there are nearly 30 million students enrolled in colleges and universities, many of whom can’t say for sure where they will be on Nov. 3, much less whether they’ll be able or willing to go to the polls.
The inability of colleges and universities to open (and stay open) will impact many aspects of society. But the impact on voting is one students can plan for.
True, the planning has to happen quickly. Voter registration deadlines vary from state to state. In Delaware, registration closes on Oct. 3. By Oct. 15, registration deadlines will have passed in 35 states.
And students don’t just need to register to vote. They need to register to vote by mail, because, again, they can’t know where they’ll be, or how bad the pandemic will be, come Election Day.
Most students should register at home, not at school, because a registration at a permanent address is less likely to be challenged than one at a campus that has closed because of covid-19. Can an empty room in a shuttered dorm count as one’s permanent address? Each state has its own rules, and given the current political climate, “Every ballot that can be challenged will be challenged,” said Tom de Boor, who is organizing an effort to help universities get out the vote.
Several organizations are working to solve the student voting problem: The American Council on Education, which represents 1,700 schools and other organizations, is using its Engage platform to help administrators find and share resources related to student voting.
Meanwhile, Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education has collected data on the voting records of students at 1,100 institutions. It plans to reward schools that have the highest voting rates this fall. And an app called votewithme tells people if their friends have voted, peer pressure being an important motivator among college students.
But time is running out. With every aspect of college life seemingly up in the air, the one thing that is certain is that students can’t vote if they don’t register.
We have a modest suggestion: The president of each of the country’s 5,000 institutions of higher education should email students this week urging them, in the strongest possible terms, to register to vote by mail. We even believe they should make proof of voter registration-- for any student eligible to vote -- a condition of attending classes (whether in person or online), just as negative covid-19-19 tests are a condition of returning to most campuses this fall.
Indeed, while covid-19 poses an existential threat to American higher education, the stakes on Election Day are no less monumental. Schools need to make clear that they’re counting on their students to vote. Every last one of them.
(This post has been updated).