Every four years, volunteers swarm university campuses, clipboards in hand, to register newly eligible voters for what is generally the only presidential election of their undergraduate careers. This year they found large numbers were already registered.
Dozens of colleges have begun their own voting registration drives in orientation programs, class registration, intranet Web sites and other interactions crucial to campus life, institutionalizing services that had often been left to outside efforts. As a result, thousands of students registered to vote, updated their addresses or requested absentee ballots from their home states within days of arriving to campus this fall, officials at several universities said.
University-sponsored attempts to make voting easier for students are being tested in at least 60 colleges across the country amid the outbreak of battles over new voting laws.
“The voter registration process has become more cumbersome and difficult as there’s been a competition to define who is eligible to vote,” said Dan A. Lewis, director of Northwestern University’s Center for Civic Engagement, which started incorporating voter registration into its freshman orientation last year. “You almost have to have a Ph.D. now to figure out how to do it if you’re not sitting in the same house for the past 20 years.”
Northwestern officials who developed the new program, UVote Project, said their intent was not to critique voting rules across the country, but to help students navigate them more easily.
“We’re not always going to have the incredible excitement among 18- to 22-year-olds that you did in 2008, so I think it’s an obligation,” said Morton Schapiro, the president of Northwestern. “We’re supposed to teach citizenship.”
Northwestern, just north of Chicago, began a drive to register voters last year, with incoming students signing up when they picked up their campus IDs. University-trained staff and volunteers provided absentee ballot request forms from all 50 states, scanned students’ driver’s licenses or other identification, and offered to mail in the paperwork.
By the first day of class, 89 percent of the university’s freshmen had been registered to vote, in 37 states. Northwestern repeated the effort this year, registering almost 95 percent of eligible freshmen, and expanded the model to eight other colleges. Stanford University used the method around campus, including on its bicycle registration line, netting more than 700 new voters in two weeks.
Roughly 11 million eligible voters ages 18 to 24 are in college, about a quarter of all eligible young voters, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
The federal Higher Education Amendments of 1998 require colleges to make a “good faith effort” to distribute registration materials to transient students, who have the option to establish residency in their home community or where they go to school.
Students who prefer to vote absentee must first traverse an array of varied rules. Some states, like Michigan and Tennessee, make voters who register by mail cast a ballot in person for their first election. North Carolina requires that ballot requests be handwritten. Other states, like Delaware and Wyoming, require a notary.
Complicating matters more this election have been partisan fights over restrictions on registration drives and new laws requiring state-issued IDs for voting, though many have been overturned or blocked this year.
Harvard University, which holds a competition among dormitories to register the most voters, is one of a growing number of schools expanding efforts by purchasing access to the Web site of TurboVote, a nonprofit effort that provides complete online registration and automated vote-by-mail services.
Founded in 2010, TurboVote is working with 58 colleges this year. It now helps more than 100,000 individuals get absentee ballots, find voting locations and track coming elections, sending out text reminders for important deadlines.
“We single-handedly registered more people in a couple of hours than several organizations that have been doing this for months,” said Shelby Taylor, a spokeswoman for the University of Florida, which promoted TurboVote on the college’s intranet home page and in an e-mail from the university’s president. The school, which registered more than 3,000 students this year, also flashed ads for TurboVote on the football stadium’s GatorVision screen during the opening home game last month. Read more