Students, voting, and census math

Students have the right to vote where they live

Originally published as “Census and Constitution Protect Student Voting” in the Bangor Daily News.

In Maine’s 38 years of Election Day registration, all sorts of folks have benefited. Yet Maine Republican PartyChairman Charlie Webster has repeatedly questioned students’ ability to vote where they live while going to school. But students have every right to vote there and this right is rooted in a kind of math — census math.

As the U.S. Constitution lays out, representatives are allocated based on population, with population determined by counting people every decade. Maine’s election districts — for state legislators and congressmen — are redrawn based on Census Bureau counts of people living in our towns, cities, hamlets and rural places.

In adding up the numbers and drawing district lines, one rule of census math is very clear: Students are counted where they live. As a 2010 Census Bureau document directed students, “If you’re not living with your parents during the school year, then no, they should not include you on their census questionnaire. The Census Bureau conducts counts of people where they live and sleep most of the year. Parents should leave students off of their forms.”

Because spreadsheets and maps used to divvy up regions into districts incorporate those students, every college town gains population in the count and enhances its figures used for allocating money for water projects and other large capital needs. As the Pew Research Center pointed out, “a large college presence may inflate a town’s political clout in the state legislature. Many billions of dollars in federal funding is guided by census counts based on population totals, so college towns may benefit.”

In short, census math helps college towns because it counts students living there, no matter their hometowns. And it would be manifestly unfair for towns to get that degree of representation — and financial benefits — flowing from including students in the count, while not allowing students to vote for those representatives.

Even more, census math is linked to students’ constitutional rights. If students, counted when dividing up congressional and state legislative districts, were not allowed to vote, this would be unconstitutional. Particular towns don’t get representatives just because they have been towns for awhile. As the 1963 Supreme Court decision in Reynolds v. Sims noted, “Legislators represent people, not areas.”

During the whole time Maine has had Election Day voter registration, traditional-age college students have had the right to vote. And Symm vs. the United States, which came after the 26th amendment gave 18-year-olds the right to vote, clarified that students living in college towns and dorms can vote there.

Besides the twin realities of census math and constitutional rights, other arguments against student voting are misplaced. No one has found any student voter fraud. Charges that there was something fishy about 19 registrants living in a hotel (who turned out to be medical students displaced by a hurricane and studying in Maine), were debunked.

Students are portrayed as not having an interest in their college towns because they won’t live there long. Some students do stick around for awhile. University of Maine students have run for office as students or recent graduates, including Democrat Kassie Stevens and Republican Matthew Gagnon. Other students leave after four or so years but contribute to the college towns as volunteer tutors, coaches and mentors. And certain local laws are always of concern to students in general.

After graduating, most students want to be on their own and support themselves. As they build lives and continue to exercise their rights as responsible, patriotic citizens, many will never vote where they grew up.

Moreover, nonstudent voters don’t have to establish that they intend to stay for many years. Members of the military and their spouses often vote where they are stationed, even if it’s for a short time. Snowbirds may transition to where they winter but continue to vote in Maine.

Americans have the right to move and many do so, renting or buying a new place that’s nicer, cheaper, larger or cozier — or in a location where they can find a job, continue their educations or explore a new area.

Students and these other Americans vote where they live, a constitutional right supported by census math.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.