Despite confusion over changing voter-registration and voter-ID laws, students, faculty and staff members, and advocates effectively defended students' voting rights in last year's presidential-election cycle, says a report released on Thursday by the Fair Elections Legal Network's Campus Vote Project.
Among the accomplishments listed in the report, "College Students and Voting: a Campus Vote Project Perspective," is the registration of more than a million new voters with online tools and social networks. Twelve states offered online registration (Washington State even put registration on Facebook), which tended to draw younger voters, the report says. Turnout among eligible voters age 18 to 29, expected to be lower than it was four years before, was 50 percent, the report says, slightly higher than in 2008. Online efforts by nonpartisan groups such as TurboVote, Rock the Vote, OurTime.org, and Voto Latino helped register hundreds of thousands of people.
Throughout the campaign season, the Campus Vote Project and other advocacy groups tried to combat misinformation and election-law changes that would have discouraged students from voting, the report says. It cites an incident in Maine, where state officials falsely implied that students from out of state could not legally vote there without obtaining a Maine driver's license and vehicle registration. And in Virginia, a state Web site wrongly suggested that out-of-state students would risk their health-care coverage and financial aid by registering to vote there, according to the report.
"Some of the worst outcomes from some of these voter-ID laws—and a lot of changes in election rules—can be the ensuing confusion," said Dan Vicuna, lead author of the report and coordinator of the Campus Vote Project. That's true, he said, "even if the laws don't survive legal challenges."
The project's goal is to clarify voting rules, he said, and to make students aware of a 1979 Supreme Court ruling, in a case known as Symm v. United States (No. 77-1688), that he said gives them the right to vote in their college communities if they choose to do so.
The report praises some campuses, like the University of Wisconsin at Madison, for protecting their students from disfranchisement. But students began the push, said Michael Moscicke, an adviser to the Associated Students of Madison. Student groups brought university administrators together with city and state officials to discuss student voting rights and disseminate information, he said. When the state's voter-ID law changed, the university made new student IDs available to fit the new requirements (the law was subsequently blocked in state court). Any student confused about how to register to vote could watch a YouTube video created by fellow students in which Bucky, the Wisconsin mascot, goes through the process.
Accomplishments aside, the report also stresses that there's still work to be done. "The end of a presidential-election cycle," it says, "does not mean civic-engagement work on college campuses is over until 2014."