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College Students Should Participate More in Politics
[Commentary] A month ago, the headline accompanying this commentary would not have been newsworthy. Everyone agrees, in theory, that college students and other young people should be more involved in politics. And although the mainstream media tends to underrepresent the level of young voter participation in politics today, everyone agrees that turnout among those 18 to 25 could — and should — be higher.
Toward that end, Iowa’s state government has always been fairly friendly to college students who choose to vote at their campus addresses. The Secretary of State’s office maintains a web page with specific instructions to college students about their voting rights, which are exactly the same as everyone else’s: you can establish residency for voting purposes anywhere you have lived for at least 10 days. If you have lived at college for that period of time, you can register to vote there.
But some important political leaders and commentators appear to believe that the 10-day threshold for residency is not enough.Last night on the campus of Grinnell College, I watched former President Bill Clinton stump for his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton. More than 80% of Grinnell’s student body comes from out of state. And yet, when he was asked at the end of his speech whether out of state students should vote here, he extemporaneously created an extralegal standard for enfranchisement above and beyond the 10-day residency threshold. It’s a “matter of conscience,” Clinton said, and students should only vote here if they consider themselves Iowans — if they feel more connected to politics here than they do to politics in their home state.
Implied in Clinton’s argument is the premise that college students feel too strongly connected to politics in two different states, as if that is the true problem: conniving young people are so eager to vote that they will do so in two different states at the same time. Does anyone actually think that’s the problem?
In truth, college students, like other young people, feel increasingly disconnected from politics, whether we’re talking about politics where they grew up or politics where they live now. There is no epidemic of college students who vote in too many elections. To the contrary, the problem is that they don’t vote enough. Viewed in this light, Clinton’s argument sets up nothing more than a straw man designed to suppress youth turnout.
In his widely read Des Moines Register column, David Yepsen also attempts to establish an extralegal standard to determine which potential caucus-goers the presidential candidates should consider worthy of their outreach efforts and which ones would be better left out in the cold. He compares college student recruitment to old-style Chicago politics, where dead voters somehow cast ballots in elections.
As someone who moved to Iowa from Florida to attend Grinnell College, I caucused and voted here as an out of state college student. I also became a political leader on campus, helping to motivate students to participate in the political process and to get out the vote. All the while, I had no idea that my actions might offend Yepsen’s or former President Clinton’s sensibilities. I was pretty sure that, as an American citizen, I was entitled to the same rights as everyone else.
When I graduated Grinnell last spring, I had a lot of options available to me. I could have left Iowa as easily as I came, never to look back. I chose to stay because I enjoyed the political process here, and I felt like I could make a difference. Had it not been for the caucus process, I can say for certain that I would have felt differently.
Iowa, more than almost any other state in the country, needs to attract more talented, enthusiastic young people for its economy to survive. Yepsen, who will be here long after the caucuses end, should recognize this fact. Suppressing their votes, whether it is through legal or extralegal arguments, doesn’t help.
In the future, when candidates and commentators are asked if students should participate in Iowa’s political process, they should not equivocate or qualify their statements, because inventing questions of conscience or problems of perception that go above and beyond the law serves only to discourage participation and suppress turnout.
The correct answer to the question of student voting requires only one word: “Yes.”