Challenges to Student Voters
As of 2017, over 16.8 million people are enrolled as undergraduate students in the U.S., comprising a huge voting force. Unfortunately, voter turnout among this group is exceptionally low. Some experts attribute this underperformance to political malaise or apathy among millennial and Generation Z populations. However, college students face significant challenges when attempting to vote, fueled by rampant misinformation and shifting bureaucratic policies.
Students must establish residency before they can vote, but each state maintains different rules and requirements. Some states require a utility bill as proof of residency, a document students living in dorms don't possess. Other states require a government-issued ID with current address. It's a common misconception that students cannot use their dorm address when registering to vote. According to Rock the Vote, students can file an affidavit to assert that they indeed live in their dorm.
This guide helps you navigate the student voting process, including information on how to register and cast your vote as an early or absentee voter. You will also gain insight into the presidential election cycle. The guide ends with information on voter rights and the steps you can take if you feel your rights have been violated.
How Presidential Voting Works in the U.S.
Occuring once every four years, the U.S. presidential election routinely garners the most attention and highest voter turnout of all the various political elections. The process begins the spring before election year, when potential candidates declare their intention to run for the presidency. While numerous political parties exist, the presidential election cycle is dominated by the Democratic and Republican parties.
As defined by the Constitution, presidential candidates must be natural-born U.S. citizens who are at least 35 years old and have lived in the U.S. for a minimum 14 years prior to running for office. Presidents cannot serve for more than two four-year terms.
As their campaigns begin, candidates participate in debates to clarify their platforms and defend their positions against other candidates in their political party. From January to June of the election year, the political parties in each state hold primaries (which use secret ballots) and/or caucuses (which operate an open-floor style of voting) to decide their presidential nominees and the delegates who will represent them at the national conventions.
Over that summer, each political party holds its nominating convention, where the aforementioned delegates formally choose their presidential candidates. During this time, each nominee also selects their running mate. The teams then campaign in earnest until the general election, which takes place on the first Tuesday after November 1.
On Election Day, Americans vote for their preferred presidential candidate. However, the overall popular vote does not determine the next president. As established by the country's Founding Fathers, the Electoral College grants each state a number of electors equal to the membership (senators and representatives) of its congressional delegation. These electors cast the votes that ultimately determine who becomes president.
In most instances, the nominee who wins a state's popular vote receives all of that state's electoral votes. However, Nebraska and Maine eschew this winner-take-all method, opting to split electoral votes between congressional districts.
Because there are 538 electors in total, a presidential nominee needs 270 electoral votes to win by majority. With two political parties accruing the vast majority of electors, the nominee with the most electoral votes wins the presidency. Constitutional provisions exist for cases where no one candidate receives 270 electoral votes, but that is another story beyond the scope of this guide.
How to Vote in College
Taking time to register and vote may seem like a burden on top of 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 states but are attending school out of state. By submitting your ballot by mail before the election, you can participate as an absentee voter, with no need to travel to your hometown polling location.
As an alternative, degree-seekers who maintain a residence (permanent or temporary) in the state where they attend college can also change their voter registration to that state, allowing them to vote in person. You can register through the mail, at a government facility, or, in some states, online. You cannot, however, be registered in two places at once.
If you're not voting absentee (through the mail), you should find your proper polling place before Election Day rolls around. That way, you'll know where to go and won't miss the voting deadline because you got lost. To find your polling place, contact your state or city election office.
It's also a good idea to research candidates running for office and familiarize yourself with the issues ahead of time. Many states mail voter information pamphlets, which cover all the candidates and issues on the ballot. You can also look up voting information online, and many newspapers offer voting guides ahead of major elections.
Voting in College FAQs
- Should I Register in My Home State or in My College State?
If you go to college out of 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 will need to sign up for an absentee ballot. Absentee ballot regulations vary by state, so be sure to research your state's process. You have the right to vote in any state where you have a temporary or permanent residence.
- 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. Typically, your residency status is determined by multiple factors, including voter registration, motor vehicle registration, driver's license, and state income tax return filing. Where your parents live can also determine your tuition status, if they claim you as a dependent.
- Does Where I Register to Vote Affect My Federal Financial Aid Package?
- Does Where I Register to Vote Affect My Scholarships?
There is a slight chance that where you are registered to vote could affect your eligibility for certain state and private scholarships and grants, if those resources are from organizations or agencies in your home state. Your school's financial aid office should be able to provide more specific information for your situation. 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?
To vote from a foreign country, you will need to fill out a Federal Post Card Application (FPCA), print and sign the application, and then mail it to your local election office in your state of residency. With a processed FPCA, you will receive a blank ballot (usually via email or fax) during election season, which you must mail to your local election office before Election Day to cast your vote.
This process may seem daunting, but there are a number of resources available to 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 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 Driver's License if I Register to Vote in a Different State?
Not necessarily -- but if the address on your license doesn't match the state where you're registered to vote, you may need to present an official document with your name and current address on it at your polling location. In most states, this document can be a utility bill or paycheck with your current address on it.
- Can I Register to Vote in Both My Home State and My 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 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. However, most states have similar requirements. For example, 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 allow 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 who is allowed to use them. According to USA.gov, most states require absentee voters to visit the office or website of their state/territorial election agency to request the document. Absentee ballots are typically delivered by mail or fax. Students should request absentee ballots early to ensure delivery, 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 There?
Rules about length of residency are set by individual states. For example, according to Vote.org, 17 states require voters to have lived in their voting precincts for at least 30 days prior to the upcoming election. If an election is taking place soon after you move to a new state, you may want to stay registered in your home state for that election.
Special Voting Circumstances
Voting as a Homeless Person
People experiencing homelessness have the same right to vote as everyone else. If you don't have a home address, you will need to provide the address of a homeless shelter, street intersection, or public park as your residence. Some states also require government-issued photo identification or affidavits certifying your citizenship.
Voting as a Survivor of Domestic Violence or Sexual Assault
In general, voter registration data is public, but in some states, only political parties, academic researchers, and journalists can access your information. Many states operate special programs for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors to keep their residency information private.
Voting With a Disability
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Voting Rights Act (VRA) both require polling locations to provide accommodations for voters with disabilities. Specifically, the VRA 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.
Voting With a Mental Health Disability
Several states, including Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Vermont, have no restrictions for voters with mental health disabilities. Other states have special voting regulations for individuals with mental disabilities who have been legally deemed incapable of taking care of themselves without the aid of a guardian.
Voting With A Guardian
In some states, you can still vote when you are under the care of a legally appointed guardian. In other states, if you wish to retain your right to vote, you must go to court to have your guardianship agreement amended. Often, you can still vote if a guardian is in charge of only 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 to your local election office, and then cast your vote using your state's absentee voting system.
Voting as an Ex-Offender
Ex-offenders with misdemeanor convictions retain their right to vote. Different laws apply in regard to felony convictions, depending on the state. In Vermont and Maine, you can vote even with a felony conviction. In some states, you will be able to vote as soon as you are released from incarceration. In others, you might have to complete a term of probation or parole before you are eligible to vote again. As of July 2019, nine states may permanently deny voting access to ex-offenders convicted of felonies, depending on the nature of the crime.
What Should You Do If You Feel Your Voting Rights Have Been Violated?
Your student voting rights are important. For specific registration and voting guidelines, be sure to check out our guide to voting in your state. If you feel like your voting rights have been violated, you can advocate for yourself with the help of voting rights organizations and government officials. If you feel you have been unfairly disenfranchised, the first thing to do is contact your county clerk's office and the Department of Justice.
If you have a disability, the county clerk will be able to provide voting accommodations for you. They can also provide additional information about how to make sure your vote gets cast and counted. Advocacy organizations, like those listed below, can also help protect your voting rights and work toward remedies if your rights have been violated.
This website provides an easy-to-use online tool for finding the contact information for your county clerk's office and other relevant government offices.
The American Civil Liberties Union is the premier civil rights advocacy organization in the country. The ACLU can help you fight for your legal rights as a voter, especially if you have been unjustly disenfranchised.
The Election Protection Coalition provides in-depth information about what steps to take and whom to contact if your voting rights have been violated.
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.