Voting in College Know Your Rights

Your student voting rights are important. If you feel like your voting rights have been violated, don’t hesitate to advocate for yourself.

Challenges to Student Voters

If you’re a college student, the result of elections can potentially have a huge impact on your everyday life — but you can’t make a difference in that outcome unless you actually vote. Of course, if you’re a college student, and especially if you are an out-of-state college student, voting in college presents a few challenges. There is plenty of misinformation out there about how to register, making the process even harder. Luckily, all you have to do is equip yourself with the right knowledge to simplify the process. This guide has all of the important information you’ll need about your voting rights and registering as a student voter in general.

Taking time to register and then eventually vote may seem like a headache when writing papers, completing assignments, and taking tests, but participating in our nation’s democratic process is always worth the effort. To make it easier for busy students to vote, the government allows them to send absentee ballots if they are still registered in their home state but are attending school out of state. Absentee voters submit their ballots by mail before the election, allowing the vote to count in their state without having to travel to a hometown polling location. Alternatively, degree seekers can also decide to change their voter registration to their college’s location, making it possible for them to vote in-person. As long as the student maintains a residence (permanent or temporary), they can register to vote through the mail or, in some states, online. They cannot, however, be registered in two places at once.

To vote, learners simply register in their home state or the state of their college. Before election day rolls around, students should research candidates running for office and familiarize themselves with the issues. Students should also find their proper polling place. Those unsure of where they should vote can contact their state election office for more information.

Should I Register in My Home State or College State?

You can register to vote in either your home state or where you attend college, but you cannot be registered in both locations. If you decide to register in your home state, you need to plan sign up for an absentee ballot. Absentee ballot regulations vary based on where you live. Be sure to research your state’s required process. Regardless, you will have the right to vote in the state of your choosing, as long as you have a temporary or permanent residence there.

Does Where I Register to Vote Affect My In-State or Out-of-State Tuition Status?

No, where you register to vote should not, in most cases, affect your in-state or out-of-state tuition status. There are typically several conditions that must be met to change your residency status, such as voter registration, motor vehicle registration, driver’s license, and state income tax return filing.

Does Where I Register to Vote Affect My Federal Financial Aid Package?

No.

Does Where I Register to Vote Affect My Scholarships?

There is a slight chance that where you register to vote could affect your eligibility for certain state and private scholarships and grants, if you have received those scholarships and grants from organizations or agencies in your home state. Your school’s financial aid office should be able to provide additional information. In most cases, if your in-state or out-of-state residency does not change, your scholarships should not change either.

How Do I Vote if I am Studying Abroad?

You will need to fill out a Federal Postcard Application (FPCA), print and sign the application, and then mail it to your local election office in your state of residency. Once your FPCA has been processed, you will receive a blank ballot (usually via email or fax) during election season to return to your local election office and cast your vote. This process may seem daunting, but there are a number of resources available to help guide you. Additionally, many voting offices allow you to check the status of your absentee voter registration online.

If I Register to Vote in Another State Can My Parents Still Claim Me on Their Taxes?

Yes, where you vote does will not impact your dependency status. Usually the IRS will consider you a dependent if your parents are paying for more than half of your expenses per year.

Do I Have to Change My Drivers License if I Register to Vote?

Not necessarily, though depending on your state, you may need to present an official document with your name and current address on it. If your address has changed, you may need to provide your polling location with documentation that verifies your change of address. In most states, this documentation can be a utility bill or paycheck with your current address on it.

Can I Register to Vote in Both My Home State and College State?

No, you do not have the right to vote in more than one location! In fact, it’s a felony (and considered voter fraud) to register to vote in multiple locales.

What Are the Requirements to Be Able to Vote?

The requirements for voting in local and federal elections vary by state, so students should check with their state election office to learn more. Most states, however, have similar requirements. All states except North Dakota require individuals to register to vote, and every state allows absentee voting. All voters must be at least 18 years of age, although some states make it possible for 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if their birthday falls before the general election. All voters must be U.S. citizens.

How Do You Get an Absentee Ballot to Vote?

States set specific rules about absentee ballots and those allowed to use them. According to USA.gov, general rules surrounding absentee voting include the requirement that students visit the office or website of their state/territorial election office to request the document. Most states require students to request a ballot by mail or fax. Students should request these early, as election offices are busy in the weeks prior to election day.

How Long Must You Live in a State to Be Able to Register to Vote?

Rules about length of residency are set by individual states. According to Vote.org, Colorado, Indiana, and Montana require voters to have lived in their voting precinct for at least 30 days prior to the upcoming election. If an election is taking place soon after a student moves to a new state, they may want to consider staying registered in their home state for that election.

Voting as Homeless

Homeless people have the same right to vote as everyone else. In most cases, to register to vote, you will need to provide the address of a homeless shelter or the address of a street corner or park as your residence. Some states also require government-issued photo identification or affidavits certifying your citizenship in lieu of identification.


Voting as a Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Survivor

In general, voter registration data is public, but many states limit who can access information, including your address. In some states, only political parties, academic researchers, and journalists can access your information. Currently, 22 states allow public access to voter registration information. Some states facilitate special programs for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors to allow them to keep information about where they reside private.


Voting with a Disability

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Voting Rights Act (VRA) both legally require polling locations to provide accommodations for voters with disabilities. Specifically, the VRA legally allows voters with disabilities to select a person to assist them with voting, with some restrictions on who can be selected. If a polling location does not have adequate access ramps and accommodations for voters with physical disabilities and mobility impairments, election workers must offer alternative means for voting. For additional information regarding state policies and laws, consult voting guides from Nonprofit VOTE and the Election Assistance Commission.


Voting with a Mental Health Disability

Several states have no restrictions for voters with mental health disabilities, including Idaho, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Illinois, Michigan, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Other states have special voting regulations for those who have been judicially deemed incapable of taking care of themselves without the aid of a guardian due to a mental disability.

Voting with a Guardian

As mentioned, in some states, you can still vote if you are under the care of a guardian. In other states, if you wish to retain your right to vote, you can go to court to have your guardianship agreement amended. And in other areas of the country, you may still be able to vote if a guardian is only in charge of certain facets of your care, such as your finances or living arrangements.


Voting While in the Military

Voting while serving abroad works just like voting in college while you’re studying abroad. You’ll need to fill out a Federal Postcard Application, send it into your local election office, and then cast your vote based on your state’s absentee voting policies.


Voting as an Ex-offender

If you are an ex-offender convicted of a misdemeanor, you retain your right to vote. If you are an ex-offender convicted of a felony, different laws apply depending on where you live. In Vermont and Maine, you can vote regardless of a felony conviction. In some states, you will be able to vote as soon as you are released from incarceration. In other states, you have to complete a term of probation or parole before you are eligible to vote again. In a few areas of the country, you cannot vote at all with a felony on your record.


For specific registration and voting guidelines, be sure to check out our guide to voting in your state. Your student voting rights are important. If you feel like your voting rights have been violated, don’t hesitate to advocate for yourself with the help of voting rights organizations and government officials. The first thing you can do if you have been unfairly disenfranchised is contact your county clerk’s office and the Department of Justice.

The county clerk will be able to provide voting accommodations for you if you have a disability or provide you with additional information about how to make sure your vote gets cast and counted. There are also a few advocacy organizations that work to help ensure that your voting rights are not violated and help you remedy the situation if they are. Below are some places you can turn to for assistance in the event your rights are violated.

CountyOffice.org
This website provides an easy-to-use online tool for finding the contact information to your county clerk’s office and other relevant government offices.

ACLU
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is the premier civil rights advocacy organization in the country, and the ACLU can help you fight for your legal rights as a voter if they have been unjustly taken away.

Election Protection Coalition
The Election Protection Coalition provides in-depth information about what steps to take and who to contact if your voting rights have been violated.

Why Don't College-Aged Citizens Vote?

The “youth vote” emerges as a topic of media analysis during every presidential election. The 2008 election hinged on the youth vote, and USA Today argues that teens and college students will sway this year’s result too. Young voters have been highlighted as a key demographic internationally as well: analysts pegged the youth vote as a critical component in elections as diverse as the 2015 presidential election in Tanzania and the recent “Brexit” referendum in the United Kingdom.

Despite their potential impact in the electoral process, young adults (age 18-29) vote at a far lower rate than any other age group in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau found that 72% of eligible voters aged 65 or older cast a ballot in the 2012 presidential election, while only 45% of eligible voters aged 18-29 did the same. Those trends held in the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, as 75% of 18- to 24-year-old voters wanted to remain. But only a fraction of young voters went to the polls, and the result sparked a firestorm of angry reactions from British millennials, outrage that was perhaps best captured in this tweet:

While this isn’t the place to debate whether the UK was wrong in choosing to leave the European Union, the result demonstrates that older generations are functionally making political decisions for younger citizens at the ballot box. And study after study shows that younger generations often don’t share political views with those from older generations. All of this highlights the push for young people to step up and assert themselves. College voters have the power to shape their own future, and they are certainly not predestined to cede the wheel to older generations (and subsequently complain about the political system).


The Economist has argued that college-aged students forgo voting largely out of apathy, disgruntled with their lack of influence. While certainly true for some, that theory doesn’t explain why so many college students who do have at least a passing interest in politics don’t vote in great numbers either.

A closer look at the electoral process reveals that inexperience may be a more significant factor than indifference. Young voters are inherently novice voters, often in new cities and states for their college education, and they do not always understand the registration process. In a 2014 analysis, the Campus Vote Project estimated that 21% of 18-24 year-olds simply missed the registration deadline. A total of 6.2% of the age group lacked information on how or where to register — which means that 1.7 million eligible youth voters wanted to vote and missed out. For perspective, the popular-vote gap between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000 was only 547,398 votes. One simply cannot make the argument that young voters do not matter or that they cannot shape elections.

Voting Rates by Age for 2012 Presidential Election

voting_rates_by_age_for_2012_presidential_election
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Another study argued that students living at home or in their hometowns found it much easier to vote than those who moved away to go to college, as the latter were forced to decipher new laws and absorb potentially higher costs to register. And, indeed, Mary Fitzgerald, a former Professor of Political Science at James Madison University, showed that young people are more likely to vote in states with less restrictive voting procedures. To further prove this point, Kira Lerner of ThinkProgress wrote how North Carolina’s voting laws suppressed the youth vote in the state’s primaries:

About 218,000 North Carolinians, roughly five percent of registered voters, do not have an acceptable form of government-issued ID that is now required under state law to cast a ballot.


Early voting offered a glimpse of the problems that will arise on Tuesday — during the past ten days of early voting, many college students were blocked from the polls. North Carolina’s WRAL reported that 864 people across the state had cast provisional early ballots because they did not have acceptable forms of ID, and four of the five counties with the highest concentrations of provisional ballots from voters without ID were in places with college campuses.


Bob Hall, the executive director of Democracy North Carolina, told ThinkProgress that the voter protection hotline is receiving many calls, “disproportionately from young people and students,” who are being told they do not have acceptable ID, so they have to “go through the maze of filling out forms” and provisional ballots. Those ballots run the risk of being challenged and not being counted.

The law was eventually struck down in a federal appellate court, but many states have similar rules, and the episode reveals how policy can be used to stifle votes from certain demographics.

What the Media Has Wrong

The evidence suggests that young people do want to vote at higher rates than they historically have. Mikhail Zinshteyn of FiveThirtyEight agreed, and in a thought-provoking piece, he explained that college freshman are more politically engaged than they have been in decades. With all of that in mind, it’s as important to explore what does not affect voting patterns for college-aged students as what does.

Take the case of social media. Candidates from all political stripes have expanded their reach on various social media platforms in recent years. The strategy makes intuitive sense given how often college students use social media: one study found that teenagers may spend as many as nine hours per day on social networking websites. Expanding that beyond the young adult demographic, the Pew Research Center recently concluded that 62% of adults get their news from various social media outlets, with Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter representing the highest percentage of news-gathering users.

It may seem strange, then, to discover that increased political outreach on social media has not resulted in higher voter turnout amongst young adults in the United States. In fact, the Washington Post reported that the voter turnout in 2014 was “almost precisely at the 20-year average.”

Politicians have also employed celebrities to serve as avenues for youth outreach in recent years. And while young voters believe that celebrities strongly influence youth political beliefs, early research suggests a flimsy connection. One study surveyed 18- to 24-year-old voters regarding Oprah’s political endorsements. Sixty percent of those people believed that Oprah’s endorsement would influence young voters, while only 15% admitted that Oprah influenced their own beliefs. Perhaps we need to determine how much Oprah’s endorsement swayed that 15% before dismissing the celebrity phenomenon entirely, but the study does show a significant discrepancy between perception and reality.

How to Improve Student Turnout

What does make a difference, then? Money and access.

Young voters face special challenges when it comes to voter registration, due to their hypermobility and their impermanent residency in college towns. For college students, more than any other demographic, access to registration information influences their turnout. The Campus Vote Project offers state-by-state guides for students in all 50 states (plus Washington D.C.). The state-specific guides seek to remove the information barriers and the complexities associated with voter registration. All young voters can click this link to learn how to register and how to cast a ballot.

It’s not just about access to accurate information, or a step-by-step guide on how to vote, though. The monetary restrictions that some states have implemented have kept many students from registering to vote, including in North Carolina. Bachelor’s degree-holders are three times more likely to vote than classmates who did not attend college, and undergraduates (who as a group come from wealthier backgrounds than those who do not attend college) also vote more than contemporaries who are not in school. That split mirrors class divides, as non-college youth are more likely to come from urban centers and are more likely to be African-American or Latino. The same financial restrictions that prevent urban youth from attending college appear to be keeping urban youth from voting as well.

reasons_for_not_voting_1824_year_olds

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

A survey of over 6,000 18-24 year olds who did not vote in the 2014 election cycle indicates that over half of young people who failed to vote would have if they hadn’t been out of town or had less difficulty with transportation or the registration process.

To increase turnout among young voters, the first steps are simple enough conceptually: ease voter restrictions and make registration information more widespread. College campuses, and even individual students, can play a crucial role by sponsoring registration drives or by otherwise organizing political participation. Campuses could also set up shuttle services to polling stations, or offer classes on civic engagement and voting. Perhaps they should even increase their outreach to local communities to include non-college youth.

College-aged voters have the potential to significantly impact political elections and to shape their own future, rather than have it shaped for them. It’s simply a matter of increasing access to the voting booth. It’s not, as many would guess, simply a matter of political apathy.

Disclaimer: BestColleges.com is not affiliated with any political parties, and none of our staff members are licensed to practice law or make legal recommendations. The information contained on this page is meant to be used as a general guide and should not be a substitution for consulting with government and state election officials.