Student voters face barriers -
Geography, rules complicate process for college youth
By Wayne Washington
They have provided much of the passion in this presidential race. They have put up signs, answered phones, swamped campaign Internet sites and sworn to be there for their candidate on Election Day.
But past elections show college students can be an unreliable voting group. Part of the reason is confusion about whether they can vote in the county where they attend school. Or, others say, it’s the hassle of having to cast an absentee ballot.
“The enthusiasm of the campaign runs into the reality of voting by absentee ballot or even remembering to vote,” said Blease Graham, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina. “There are a lot of potential barriers.”
College students, of course, are not all residents of the place where they attend classes. Typically, large colleges enroll students from across the country.
Elections, however, are local functions, administered by local officials. Different localities have different rules, further complicating things for students.
Chris Whitmire, public information officer for the S.C. State Election Commission, said students have three choices when it comes to how they vote.
If they already are registered to vote in another place, they can contact election officials there to request an absentee ballot.
In addition to voting by absentee ballot, students can return to their hometowns to vote. However, students do have a third option — changing their place of residence so they can vote in the county where they attend college.
But that can be a little tricky, Whitmire said. “You have to know the address of your dorm,” Whitmire said. “They can’t use a post office box. They have to put you in the right district.”
Students who want to change their place of residence and vote in South Carolina have until Saturday to do so. There is no required length of residency.
Whitmire said information on the state Election Commission’s Web site could answer other questions students might have about registering and voting.
OTHERS CONFUSED TOO
Students aren’t the only ones who may be confused about their voting rights. Many with criminal records, especially those who have been incarcerated, often wrongly think they forever forfeit their right to vote.
Felons and those who have broken the state’s elections laws are not eligible to vote until they complete the terms of their legal punishment.
The state Election Commission recently sent county officials a memo outlining how such voters can cast ballots. First, they have to re-register with county voting officials by submitting a registration application. County officials then determine whether the potential voter meets eligibility requirements.
Local election boards can ask for proof that the voter’s legal punishment has been completed, though that proof is not required by law.
In a recent study, the S.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union found 36 S.C. counties require proof that legal punishment has been completed.
“If additional proof is not required by law, the state Election Commission should be advising the counties not to require proof that an offender has completed a sentence,” said Brett Bursey, director of the S.C. Progressive Network, a social and economic advocacy group. “This added requirement burdens the 18,000 citizens a year who have paid their debt to society, and may result in them not voting.”