(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – Despite college campuses across the country being breeding grounds for political activity, many of them are failing to comply with a federal law that requires them to provide voter registration forms to all students, a study found last month.
The Higher Education Act of 1998 requires schools to request voter registration forms at least 120 days prior to the registration deadlines of the state. Schools must have enough registration forms for the entire student body and “must make a good faith effort to make the forms available.” This law does not apply to the five states that have same day registration available or to North Dakota which has no voter registration at all.
Only 17 percent of colleges surveyed, report meeting the “strict” requirements of the law while 49 percent said they meet the “spirit” of the law by making registration forms available and holding voter registration drives, according to a survey released by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics and The Chronicle of Higher Education in September.
“Students and administrators on many campuses are effectively helping to increase civic participation,” said IOP Director Phillip Sharp. “However, not all universities are fulfilling their obligations under the Higher Education Act to facilitate student voter registration.”
The survey was sent by email to 815 college and university presidents in August 2004. Just over 30 percent or 249 schools responded. Prometheus Research, a social science research firm based in New Haven, Conn. evaluated the methodology of the survey.
“Although both the survey sample and the survey respondents are likely not representative, this unrepresentativeness should lead the results to overstate compliance with voter registration laws,” the company said in a press release.
More than eight out of ten schools surveyed hosted a political speaker last semester and more than seven out ten schools said they have hosted voter registration drives. However, many of the voter registration drives on campus are held by non-university groups. “It’s not ideal,” said David King, associate director of IOP and a lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard. “Between a third and 40 percent of college students are political independents. Most non-university drives are partisan and miss these independents.” In 2000, just over 35 percent of the country’s 26.8 million citizens between 18 and 24-years-old voted in the presidential election. In 1972, over half of this demographic voted. If college students vote in mass next week, they could be the deciding factor in what looks to be a tight presidential race.
The Higher Education Act of 1998 requires schools to provide paper forms but registration forms are now widely available on the internet. In fact, some colleges said they had trouble getting the large number of paper forms from election officials. “My sense is that schools should be judged by whether they’re living up to the ‘spirit’ of the law — not the technicalities of a paper-based system,” King said. Most schools believe that they could be doing more to aid students in voting. When asked to give their institution a letter grade based on “their effectiveness at registering voters,” 51 percent gave themselves a B while 37 percent gave themselves a C, D, or F.
Some schools not only met the criteria of the law but went above and beyond. “Lots and lots of schools did great things,” King said.
At Purdue University, a section on voter registration was mailed to every student with their fee statements. Voter registration forms are available at the Office of the Registrar’s Web site and freshman orientation included two sections on voter registration. The Student Government and Student Union Board at Purdue are working to sponsor a voter awareness week.
At Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., they hold a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream party in the fall. Students’ admission ticket is their sealed absentee ballot, which the school will then post and mail for the students, or a voter registration card.
At San Francisco State University, the president sent an e-mail to all students, faculty and staff about voter registration and voting. Promotions such as free coffee with a ballot receipt or “I voted” pin are held on campus, the University presented a free public lecture series called “The 2004 Presidential Election: Issues and Analyses,” and there is even a polling place on campus.
The most common excuse schools gave for not complying with the law was that they simply didn’t know the law existed, King said. Failure to meet the demands of Higher Education Act could result in a loss of federal funding which would impact financial aid.
“I don’t expect, though, that any school is likely to be brought up on charges,” King said. “Rather, in the wake of the Chronicle’s reporting on the issue, schools are now very much aware of requirements under the law. And I expect schools will, from this point forward, be careful to follow the ‘spirit’ of the law.”
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