State Restrictions Inhibit Youth Voter Registration

This story was written by Lauren D. Kiel, Harvard Crimson
Restrictive voter registration practices negatively affect the turnout of young voters, according to a study released this week.

The study -- released by the Student Public Interest Research Groups' (PIRGs) New Voters Project -- examined colleges in Arizona and New Mexico, states with especially restrictive voting laws, during the 2006 election cycle.

Last year, students from the National Campaign at the Institute of Politics conducted a similar study, in which they analyzed voting restrictions in five states that required students to register or vote in person for their first election.

The new study by the Student PIRGs also evaluated different ways to overcome the effect of these laws.

"We had a theory that there are things you can do to mitigate it," said David J. Rosenfeld, the study's author and the director of the Student PIRGs' national program.

In Arizona, those wanting to register to vote were required to provide an Arizona driver's license number or identification card. People without one of these were required to produce a birth certificate or passport -- documents the authors felt students from out of state would not typically have with them.

"It's really blatant disenfranchisement," said Sujatha Jahagirdar, program director for the New Voters Project.

No form of identification is necessary to register to vote in Massachusetts. Any U.S. citizen aged 18 or older can register by filling out a form that can be requested online or obtained at a public library, post office, or election commission office.

In New Mexico, third-party agents conducting voter registration drives were required to submit an oath saying they would follow all election laws and were only permitted to have a limited number of voter registration forms in their possession at a time.

Rosenfeld said the law was vague enough that local registrars could interpret it as they chose. In conducting their registration drives, the Student PIRGs sought to receive leniency regarding the requirements by developing relationships with registrars.

Rosenfeld said the strategy worked, citing figures placing voter turnout for students from the New Mexico campuses at 3.8 percent, a number similar to the national average for schools in unrestricted areas. However, the Student PIRGs' efforts in Arizona to inform students about voting restrictions through one-on-one interaction did not generate similar success, with students only voting at a rate of 3.5 percent.

The study also included suggestions to make voting more accessible to young people, including allowing voter registration up until election day and allowing people to more easily register in the state where they choose to reside.

"There should be a national requirement that students from out of state should be able to vote in the state where they go to school, if they so choose," Jahagirdar said.
© 2007 Harvard Crimson via U-WIRE