Why Are College Students’ Votes Worth More Than Everyone Else’s?

REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Michael Thielen Executive Director, Republican National Lawyers Association
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Mitt Romney owned 6 houses during the 2012 election.  If Romney voted using three of those houses in 2012, that would be unacceptable, right?   Yet, Romney could have easily done this if not for some adult consequences such as taxes (and having personal ethical standards).

Let’s play out this hypothetical:

He could have first voted in the Michigan primary, one of the first in the nation in 2012, registering at his Michigan house.  He next could have voted in the California Republican primary (the most delegates to the Republican convention), a state where he, in this hypothetical, could have legally registered due to having a home there.   One thing for sure in this hypothetical is California would still have him on their voter rolls since California failed to comply with the bipartisan Help America Vote Act’s requirements to clean up their lists for 14 years after its passage.

His pollsters could have told him New Hampshire was the only swing state of his residences and he could have walked into the polls on Election Day and voted under New Hampshire’s very loose “drive-by voting” system.

I think all can agree it would be wrong if a multi-millionaire like Mitt Romney could game the system this way.

So why aren’t we upset when students do the same thing?  Would we really accept the fact that adult commuters who work in New York and Boston and leave for their true homes on the weekends can vote in the city if it is in the strategic interest of a political party? Would we accept adults who are periodically working in a state or city voting there even when they have no real intent to live there?  The answer is a resounding no.  Worse, why aren’t we troubled that a political party uses students as political pawns on a regular basis?

Legal definitions about eligibility to vote in a state vary from state to state, but state residence, domicile, inhabitance, or similar requirements usually contain the intent to live there for the foreseeable, or undetermined, future.  A person who enters a state with no intent to remain usually does not meet this standard, and many college students have no intention to remain in the place they go to college.  But some students do meet the legal standard, and this is why student voting location is so tricky.  There is no set rule or answer for students, but the needs of a political party is not an ethical or acceptable way for a student to figure out where he or she should vote.

In 2008, then-Senator Obama’s campaign started a program nicknamed “float the vote”.  This program involved telling students to vote where it was most politically advantageous for the Obama campaign and not where the student felt they “resided” or where they met the legal definition of residency or domicile for purposes of voter registration.  This program unfortunately encouraged white lies for short-term political gain by encouraging students to state under oath that their college town was their permanent home and they intended to stay and vote.  The program also undermined federal law that authorized and encouraged students who were away to vote by absentee ballot in their hometown.

In other words, two otherwise identical students with just their homes and schools reversed would be told to vote in opposite places.  For example, let’s say Suzy goes home to her parents’ house in Washington, DC, from college in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the University of Virginia every weekend and summer.  She would be told to vote in Virginia by the “float the vote” program.  However, if Suzy went to school at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and went home on weekends to her parents’ house in Charlottesville, Virginia, the program would tell her to vote in Virginia.  It did not matter where she was really or legally “residing” but which locality mattered more for the Obama campaign.  Obviously, in 2008 Virginia was the more important state for electoral purposes while DC was a lock for Obama.  This is an effort that Democrats have done since 2008 in different forms.

Float the vote demeaned voting from a patriotic right and duty to something strategic that included a bit of lying about where students really lived. There used to be safeguards in some states, such as Virginia, whereby students would be asked a series of simple questions when registering to see if they really resided in Virginia.  This matters, in part, because there many more elections than just the Presidential election.  However, Democratic Virginia Governors Tim Kaine and Terry McAuliffe appointed Democrats to the Virginia Board of Elections that eliminated these questions.  McAuliffe also attempted to effectively eliminate voter registration questions on citizenship and felonies by saying those who did not answer would be automatically registered.  The reason why they did so was quite simply the perception, backed up by polls, that felons, non-citizens, and students overwhelmingly vote Democrat.

But unlike non-citizens and some felons, students unequivocally have the right to vote.  That is not in question.  The question is where they have the right to vote.  They have the right to vote where they actually  live and intend to live, not where their vote will be most strategically important.  Under the scenario McAuliffe and Kaine setup, Suzy could vote for McAuliffe’s successor for Governor in 2017 and for the Democrat DC Mayoral primary (generally the most contested election in DC) in 2018 without a single change in her circumstances.

Why should students have the option to vote in multiple places, making their votes count more than an average American?  Putting aside the Presidential election or headlining statewide races, think what this does to local races. Does a student, who is only voting in a state because her preferred Presidential candidate told him to, really care about the city referendum or a bond issue on the ballot to be paid in 20 years?  We should hold students to the same standards as every other citizen.

Every single student who is otherwise qualified to vote (for example, a citizen) absolutely has the right to vote.  Further, “float the vote” may not be illegal, but it certainly is unethical.  But the better question is: why should parties and candidates have the ability to choose where they want students to vote with no other criteria other than which location is more helpful to them?

Students have a superior vote floating advantage to people like Mitt Romney.  For Mitt Romney pays taxes as a multimillionaire on his homes and in the state where he resides.  If he spends just one night in New Hampshire and most of his nights in Michigan, he is going to be paying taxes in Michigan and not the income-tax-free state of New Hampshire.

Nevertheless, the left is up in arms because New Hampshire is attempting to hold students minimally responsible if they vote in New Hampshire, saying they may have to obtain a driver’s license and pay a car registration fee.  In other words, by choosing a state as their home for voting purposes, it should be their home for other purposes as well.  Of course, for most voters, that is normal – where a voter votes is where a voter actually lives.

To be clear, liberals’ rhetoric about student voting has nothing to do with defending “poor students” or whether students have a right to vote and everything to do with obtaining more votes in close races.  The Democratic Party encourages this tactic because polls show students tend to vote Democrat.

It should not be contentious or controversial to say that students should have the same right to vote as everyone else, nothing more and nothing less.

Michael Thielen is executive director of the Republican National Lawyers Association.