The GOP, the party that long, long ago was in the business of extending rather than curtailing the franchise, has been behind most of these attempts to keep students away from the polls in their college towns. And with that party even more brimful of ultra-rightists than ever, the disfranchisement effort has been stepped up.
But, remarkably, on Wednesday, as occasionally happens, some Republicans saw the light. The New Hampshire House Elections Committee shot down an attempt to screw students out of the right to vote in their campus towns. Students, who have been organizing against this travesty since it was introduced in January, deserve full credit for their protests and letter-writing campaigns.
As Laura Clawson, Yemtex, Project Vote and Jamess have pointed out, the attack on the constitutional right of students to vote where they live was accompanied with a sneer by none other than New Hampshire Speaker of the House William O'Brien. In the Washington Post earlier this week, Peter Wallsten pointed to O'Brien's recent YouTubed speech:
New Hampshire's new Republican state House speaker is pretty clear about what he thinks of college kids and how they vote. They're "foolish," Speaker William O'Brien said in a recent speech to a tea party group.
"Voting as a liberal. That's what kids do," he added, his comments taped by a state Democratic Party staffer and posted on YouTube. Students lack "life experience," and "they just vote their feelings.
From such views came House Bill 176. Introduced by Rep. Gregory Sorg, the bill would have redefined "domicile" as the town or state where students lived before moving to the campus town regardless of whether they intended to return to that town or state after graduation:
Sorg referred to students as "transient inmates . . . with a dearth of experience and a plethora of the easy self-confidence that only ignorance and inexperience can produce." He argued that his bill, HB 176 ... would end unfair domination of local elections by students. He said the state should revert to laws that were in place in the 1950s, before state and federal court decisions said students living in a town have a right to vote there.
Why not go all the way and ignore the 26th Amendment altogether?
In fact, students attend college or university for four or five years, and many stay on in the communities where they graduate. In our mobile society where non-student residents also move from place to place, students are like everyone else in that they pay local sales taxes every time they buy something and local property taxes via their rent. They pay park and recreation and other fees. They are subject to all the laws of the community in which they live. Thus, they have every right to vote in that community, morally and legally.
As the heads of the College Democrats and College Republicans at Dartmouth blogged...a few days ago, "the most distressing implication of HB 176 is its innate assertion that students are not truly members of their state and local communities, that the stake we hold in our politics is mitigated by the location where our parents happen to reside. The bill tells us, 'Vote somewhere else.'"
Exactly so. Moreover, the legal, moral right doesn't cease to exist just because students tend to vote in a more liberal fashion. That, of course, is what really irked O'Brien and like-minded Republican legislators. If 2008 had shown students voting in their campus towns for John McCain in the numbers they voted for Barack Obama, would we have seen this sleazy effort to disfranchise them?
The reality, as Heather Smith of RocktheVote recently wrote?
"It's true that without the participation of many, power will consolidate into the hands of the few. The inverse is also true: When many participate, it threatens those in power."
It would be almost hilarious if all this spew about alleged student immaturity weren't accompanied by legislators talking about going back to the good ol' days by ignoring federal law and federal court rulings. But they are quite serious. And, if the past is any guide, they'll probably be at it again down the road.
After all, seven years ago, the district attorney of Waller County, Texas, wrote an Op-Ed column in a local newspaper in which he threatened to prosecute students at the traditionally black Prairie View A&M for illegal voting. He backed off when a lawsuit was threatened. It was voter suppression three decades ago at Prairie View that spurred the Supreme Court to uphold students’ rights to vote at their college address in the Symm v. United States (1979) case.
Redefining residency is not the only thing Republicans had on their minds in New Hampshire. They also wanted to terminate same-day voter registration. The House Elections Committee voted Wednesday against that change, too. But a plan for a voter identity card is still a possibility. And New Hampshire isn't the only state trying for that option. Forcing students to purchase state-issued identity cards before they can vote has been proposed in several states, including Wisconsin and Montana.
The good news, as we saw from the effort in New Hampshire, is that students everywhere are fighting back. However, as has been the case since the founding of the Republic, defending the franchise is everybody's fight. Two good places to volunteer to help win it are Election Protection and RocktheVote.