ALBANY — Polling places will open on several college campuses statewide on Election Day, just as the youth vote surges and as Republicans are increasingly wary about the impact campus voting can have on elections from Congress to local government.
New York State law requires local boards of election to open a polling place on a campus at which more than 300 voters are registered at their college address. The measure went into effect in 2022. The early voting period is not included.
Thirty campuses had polling places in 16 counties outside New York City, including Stony Brook University, in the November 2022 general election. More than 600 additional polling places on campuses were located in New York City, where urban campuses long have been used as polling places.
Efforts are underway through legislation and by student and voting rights groups and the New York Public Interest Research Group to increase the number of campus polling sites for this year's election, as well as the busier presidential and congressional elections in 2024.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Polling places will open on several college campuses statewide on Election Day as the youth vote surges and as Republicans are increasingly wary about the impact campus voting can have on elections.
- New York state law requires local boards of election to open a polling place on a campus at which more than 300 voters are registered at their college address.
- Thirty campuses had polling places in 16 counties outside New York City, including Stony Brook University, in the November 2022 general election.
Advocates say students are energized by issues such as global warming, erosion of abortion rights, student loan debt and the conservative movement in Congress and on the Supreme Court. But Democrats also have traditionally benefited from the youth vote, and making it easier for students to vote potentially can create Democratic voting blocs within districts represented by Republicans.
At Stony Brook University, the #SeawolvesVote initiative provides students with registration instructions and Election Day reminders on websites, Facebook and Instagram for primary and general elections. Hofstra Votes encourages and helps student to register and vote. The group also staffs an information table for a week before Election Day.
Washington Monthly’s national survey of colleges that do the most to successfully promote voting includes four New York campuses: The Bard, Nazareth and Hamilton colleges and SUNY’s Binghamton University.
Cornell Votes was among the student and voting-rights groups that lobbied for the law requiring polling places on more campuses, where students live for most or all of several years.
“We offer students the option of voting through their home or campus addresses and provide resources for both options,” said Elena Woo, a senior from Portland, Oregon, and president of Cornell Votes. “If the students prefer to vote in Ithaca, we believe the on-campus polling site has made the option much more accessible to our students.”
The nonpartisan student group created in 2020 held many events, including National Voter Registration Day with state Sen. Lea Webb (D-Binghamton), whose upstate, mostly rural district includes Cornell, SUNY’s Cortland College and Binghamton University.
“We saw an increase in student voting rate of 18.7%,” Woo said, citing a growth of student voting from 2016 to 2020. “The voting culture is well-established at Cornell … Cornell Votes works to make sure that every student has the opportunity to get registered and receive reminders to vote throughout the year through campus administration messaging.”
The college vote can be substantial. SUNY has more than 326,000 students, CUNY has 243,000, and the more than 100 nonpublic colleges in the state, such as Hofstra University, serve nearly 500,000 students.
“It’s critically important to make voting easier and to provide opportunity for people to vote,” Assemb. Fred Thiele (D-Sag Harbor) said.
Thiele is a co-sponsor of a bill that would expand the use of campus polling places beyond traditional election days. The bill would require every SUNY and CUNY campus with a dormitory to have a polling place not just on Election Day, but during the nine days of early voting.
“To me, having early voting opportunities on campuses makes perfect sense,” Thiele said.
Democrats in Albany have approved several voting laws in recent years. In 2020, a law required all State University of New York and City University of New York schools to have an online guide for students on how to vote and access absentee ballots, which could be mailed. This year, on Sept. 22, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed into law a measure that requires public and nonpublic schools to promote registration on campuses and preregistration of 17-year-olds in high school.
The latest package of voting bills also created a “Golden Day” for voters to register to vote during the nine days of early voting instead of a deadline set at weeks before an election. Voting advocates expect that will prompt far more college students to register.
But Republicans have raised concerns about the Democrats’ measures.
Students who choose to register to vote from their college addresses in Republican congressional districts upstate could create a consequential bloc of voters who tend to vote Democratic and liberal. That could impact the thin margin that gives Republicans control of the House as well as affect state and local elections.
“These efforts by New York Democrats are just the latest example of their efforts to silence communities around our state, many upstate, where these college campuses are located,” said Senate Republican leader Rob Ortt (R-North Tonawanda). “In no world should a person from Manhattan or Long Island, who attends college in Potsdam for half the year, have any say in who is going to represent an area from the local level up to federal races. It is simply unfair to the people who actually live, work and pay taxes in these areas they actually call home.”
The Cook Political Report, a Washington-based analyzer of races, lists four congressional districts in New York state represented by Republicans as “toss-ups,” including three upstate districts with significant college populations. A fourth, the 3rd Congressional District in Nassau County now represented by embattled Rep. George Santos, is labeled “leans Democratic.”
“Improving voting access for college students is a laudable goal, but locations where ballots are actually being cast warrants closer examination,” Assembly Republican leader Will Barclay (R-Pulaski) said.
“We don’t want a system that compromises the integrity of local elections or significantly shifts a small town’s electorate away from its lifelong, full-time residents,” Barclay said. “College students should have access to polling places, but we need to be wary of opening the door to outsized influence over local elections.”
Dutchess County has been a battleground. Students and administrators at Bard and Vassar colleges have had to threaten lawsuits accusing county officials of voter suppression. Key to their argument was a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled against a county in Texas that put up roadblocks to students voting on campus.
The Republicans have a basis for their concern.
A Tufts University study shows the youth turnout nationwide increased to 20.7% in 2022, up from 16.4% in 2018 and from 8.5% in 2014. Meanwhile, the Brookings Institution think tank analyzed exit polls from the 2022 midterm congressional elections and concluded “young voters showed strong Democratic preferences, which contributed to the party’s better-than-expected performance in the House, Senate, and select gubernatorial races.”
“I think there is much more interest in policy issues among young voters than in past years,” said Blair Horner, executive director of NYPIRG, which has chapters on 16 college campuses.
“Where they choose to register to vote is up to them, just like ‘snowbirds’ who can vote from here or from Florida,” Horner said of New Yorkers who retire to the South.
The co-sponsor of the bill with Thiele said the measure is needed to overcome obstacles to getting more students to vote.
“It’s all part of, in my opinion, good government and getting people more involved in civic institutions,” Assemb. Nader Sayegh (D-Yonkers) said. “The whole goal of getting the younger generation involved is to make it more accessible … it’s long overdue.”