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Some counties suppress early voting by students, advocates say

ALBANY — New York legislators and student advocates are targeting what they consider obstacles created by counties that keep the growing population of college-age voters from casting ballots on campus during early voting periods.

Researchers and advocates argue that little-known rules set by county boards of election are suppressing student votes in local and congressional races — 50 years after the nation adopted the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18.

Students who want to vote in the county in which their campus address is located must register with the board of elections in that county rather than their parents' home county. U.S. Census and university surveys show college-age voters are part of the fastest growing segment of voters.

Some counties have adopted measures that can dissuade students from registering to vote where their campuses are located. Advocates said those measures include refusing to accept college identification cards as sole proof of residency, requiring an in-state driver’s license and advising students to vote from their parents’ addresses.

In addition, some counties have requirements for polling sites that campuses might find more difficult to meet, such as the number of hours that polling sites must be open and the number of parking spaces that must be available as well as the distance from parking to the polls.

Advocates say not having early voting sites on campuses suppresses the vote because students often don't have cars to travel to other polling sites, have little time while juggling course loads and jobs, and don't have the flexibility to wait in longer lines on Election Days.

"The effort to curtail student voting has definitely ramped up in recent years," said Nancy L. Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University, who has extensively researched the impact of voting by college students and access to the vote. "It is partly, I believe, because students are now turning out more to vote in noticeable numbers … and there is a perception — that is wrong — that all students are liberal."

County election officials, however, note their job is to serve all voters with limited funding and staff and within the parameters of the law setting requirements for polls. County officials also note that students can mail ballots, use public transportation to get to many early voting sites, or vote from the parents' home,

In New York State, Onondaga County, home to Syracuse University with more than 21,000 students, has no site for early voting, which this year will be Oct. 23-31 statewide. Neither does Erie County, which includes the University at Buffalo and Buffalo State College; Albany County with the state University at Albany; or St. Lawrence County, home to state campuses at Potsdam and Canton as well as Clarkson University and St. Lawrence University.

On Long Island, Suffolk County has an early voting site at the Southampton campus of Stony Brook University, with more than 17,000 undergraduates. Nassau County, home to Hofstra University with more than 6,000 undergraduates and Long Island University with 15,000 undergraduates, has no early voting sites on campuses.

Nassau County Democratic Commissioner James P. Scheuerman said no one has requested an early voting site on a campus in the county.

"In my opinion, college campuses are not well suited for early voting sites," he said. "They are very large campuses, there are many buildings. If you are not a student, you have no clue where to go and parking is usually tough with on-site campus security."

Last year was also the first year of early voting in a major election, compounded by precautions mandated to protect against the COVID-19 pandemic and a shortage of staff and funding, election officials noted.

Amy H. Hild, president of the New York State Election Commissioners Association and a Democratic commissioner for Schenectady County, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

"Some SUNY campuses have been rejected at times — putting added pressure on our students to vote absentee or find ways to vote in-person," said SUNY spokeswoman Holly Liapis of efforts to provide voting sites. "SUNY believes access to the fundamental right to vote is an important responsibility and we have offered up our campuses across the state not only for our students, but for the broader community."

The concern is not just in large publicly funded colleges.

In July, Bard College joined students to file a lawsuit against the Dutchess County Board of Elections to put a polling place campus after years of unsuccessful negotiations. Bard College President Leon Botstein called it "the suppression of youth voters."

In South Carolina, students at Furman College successfully sued in 2016 to allow voting from campus and to end a questionnaire students needed to complete to show a connection to the community. In New Hampshire this year, a bill would make establishing residency at college addresses more difficult and invalidate college identification cards to prove residency.

Shelli Cohen, as a student at Binghamton University, said she experienced the problem.

In the midst of a heated congressional race last year, Cohen said she asked the Broome County Board of Elections to establish an early voting site on campus. Fueling the effort were students who wanted to weigh in on the 22nd Congressional District race.

Cohen told a state Senate hearing this summer that the Broome County Board of Elections said they didn’t have enough funding to open an early voting site on campus. A few weeks later, however, the county Board of Elections opened a fourth early voting site. It was in an agriculture agency building farther away from campus than the original three sites.

"I don’t know why we actively encourage students not to vote," Cohen told senators. She said 6,000 students live on campus and 20,000 students walk the campus daily. "It shouldn’t be difficult."

In the end, the 22nd Congressional District seat was won by Republican Claudia Tenney, who was backed by President Donald Trump, over Democrat Anthony Brindisi, by 109 votes.

There is no early voting site at all in the town of Vestal, where most of the Binghamton campus is located. Vestal is the third most populous municipality in Broome County with 18,676 registered voters and a Democratic enrollment advantage.

"First and foremost, early voting sites are to help the entire county," said Mark E. Smith, the county’s Republican commissioner. "We tried to think of sites that are accessible to the entire county. We want to make sure they are in centralized locations, that they are safe early in the morning and at night, that there is ample parking and we want to make sure people know where they are going."

He notes the fourth location, in the town of Dickinson, is at the confluence of major highways, making it a convenient drive for those with cars. He also notes some early voting sites are on the county bus line to many neighborhoods where students live off campus. One county bus line goes to the shopping mall, which is 2.7 miles from campus along a major highway. The county does have polling places on campus on Election Day and on primary voting day.

"We want to extend voting to all, including Binghamton University," Smith said. "We are looking to see what we can do to expand voting sites." He said students should choose to vote from the address based on the political races for which they are most passionate.

"I know when I was a college student and being a lifelong resident of Broome County … I wanted to vote on those races," he said.

A bill passed in the State Senate this year and active going into the 2022 session would require voting sites including early voting polls on campuses at which more than 300 registered voters reside. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Kevin Parker (D-Brooklyn) and Assemb. Nily Rozic (D-Queens).

SUNY and 121 student, faculty, community and good-government groups support the bill.

A 2019 University of Florida study analyzed the impact of early on-campus voting.

"There is no question that young, newly registered voters who voted early disproportionately did so at the newly created on-campus locations," concluded Professor Daniel A. Smith, who ran the study. Early voting was especially popular with voters in racial and ethnic minorities and for first-time voters, the study found.

He said early voting "lowers the cost" of voting for busy students in terms of transportation but also in time expended.

"Now they can just roll out of bed and vote and a lot of people don’t like that, especially in local elections," Smith said in an interview. "The evidence is pretty clear: Why this is done is because a lot of local officials don’t want to lower the cost of elections … even in a liberal community, ‘permanent’ residents want to have more say than students … and thousands of votes can be a heavy voting bloc."

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