With the help of student voting data from the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement (NSLVE), a study run by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education (IDHE) at Tisch College, students at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., are fighting back against restrictive voter laws and regaining their constitutional right.
When Furman University students Katherine West, Benjamin Longnecker and Sulaiman Ahmad found that their fellow students’ voting efforts were being thwarted by restrictive practices — resulting in a mere 24 percent student voting rate in 2012 at Furman, according to the NSLVE study (half of the 46.9 percent seen in comparable institutions) — they decided to fight for change.
The students attributed Furman’s paltry voting rate to an invasive, overbearing survey that every student using an on-campus address had to fill out in order to register. The 11-question form, issued by the Greenville County Board of Voter Registration and Elections, asked students at Furman — as well as nearby Bob Jones University, North Greenville University and Greenville Technical College — to answer a series of invasive questions, including where they hold bank accounts, where their parents live, where they work and what off-campus ties they have to the community.
The letter included with the survey stated that a student’s request to register had been received, but that the county voter registration office must first determine the student’s “intention as to [their] official legal residence.” According to the letter, the State Attorney General “ruled that students, especially those boarded in college facilities, must meet the test of intention to move legal residence to that area.”
“I find these questions incredibly invasive,” West said. “I refuse to answer them.”
So the students went out and found a team of lawyers, including Susan Dunn, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.
“The board of elections in Greenville appears to take the position that on-campus students shouldn’t be allowed to vote in Greenville,” Dunn said.
Voting is a power enumerated to the states and local governments, and they are allowed to review the registrations to prevent voter fraud, but it is illegal to treat an entire swath of the population, like students, with greater scrutiny.
And so the students sued the Greenville County Board of Voter Registration and Elections, requesting an immediate injunction on the questionnaire. And they won. On Oct. 7, Judge Robin Stilwell ordered the board to immediately stop issuing the questionnaires, extend the voter registration date and return to registering voters “in accordance with its prescribed duties.”
The questionnaire arose from a 1973 lawsuit also brought by Furman students, in which the judge ordered the Greenville County Board of Voter Registration and Elections to continue to use questionnaires to verify students’ residences. However, jurisprudence shifted just six years later in the 1979 case Symm v. the United States, when a Texas court determined that registrars couldn’t apply different standards to college students. Judge Stilwell cited the latter case in his decision, saying that by denying an injunction, students “would forever lose their right to exercise a highly prized and fundamental democratic right to vote in this particular election.”
The efforts of the Furman students — who fought for their constitutional right to vote — should serve as an inspiration and reminder to all college students. Across the country, young people and people of color are facing restrictive laws and practices meant to intimidate and discourage them from voting. This is a tactic that has been championed by Republicans at a nationwide level, knowing that voter ID laws and similar practices increase the likelihood of a conservative victory on Election Day.
But this isn’t an issue that is confined to conservative states or to national elections. Why do Tufts students vote at four different polling locations, three of which are off campus? Why are students forced to re-register every time they move dorms, even within the same town? Why have there been consistent reports of students being denied the right to vote, especially in Medford? These are questions students should be asking themselves as the Oct. 19 registration deadline and the election approach. According to a November 2015 report from the NSLVE, 51.2 percent of Tufts students voted during the 2012 presidential election. While this figure is above the average of 46.9 percent of students from the more than 750 colleges and universities included in the study, it is far from optimal.
Attempts to discourage and restrict voting only work if we let them. Push back, as students at Furman did, and exercise your constitutional right.