Harvard Institute urges changes to make youth voting easier

Elon is one of 19 partner schools in the Harvard Institute of Politics (IOP), which today made several recommendations to the National Association of Secretaries of State to simplify voter registration and absentee voting procedures. The goal of the proposed changes is to encourage increased participation in future elections by young people.

Harvard’s Institute of Politics’ three key registration and absentee voting improvement recommendations, as presented to NASS, are:

1) Rescue “Marooned” Voters. Current law in five states – Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, and Tennessee – require voter identification safeguards far more stringent than required by the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), which are stranding “marooned” voters away at school. First-time registered voters in these five states intending to vote by absentee ballot – but who do not register to vote in person – are required to vote in person back home. These requirements especially impact college students, who often register by mail or at a registration drive, rather than in person. Consequently, students away at school are forced to choose between traveling home to vote in person – or being shut out from voting in their home state. Voters are also being “marooned” by the multiplicity of voting deadlines. Due to numerous and confusing registration and absentee ballot deadline dates across the country, many college students are missing the opportunity to vote back home where they want to (CIRCLE post-election polling showed 78% of college students registered to vote in their home state said they “preferred” to be registered there). Recommendations on rescuing “marooned” voters:

  • Eliminate these identification requirements for the first-time voter, and instead mirror federal HAVA identification requirements so all registered voters can vote by absentee ballot that choose to
  • Make deadlines for absentee ballot applications and submissions uniform nationwide. Implementing identical deadlines in every state to request and submit absentee ballots – the first and third Tuesdays in October respectively, for example – would help eliminate confusion and missed deadlines by voters who plan to vote by absentee ballot.

2) Make the absentee ballot application and submission process clearer. Many absentee ballot voters mistakenly believe that by submitting a voter registration form, they are also officially requesting an absentee ballot – unaware that a separate form is required to do so. In addition, uncertainty by the voter over application and submission deadlines, as well as when a voter can expect to receive the ballot, add to voter confusion. Recommendations on making the absentee ballot process clearer:

  • Add a disclaimer to voter registration forms indicating a separate form is required to request an absentee ballot; or
  • Add a “check box” on registration forms to request an absentee ballot, thereby eliminating the need for a separate form
  • Also, make voter education sections of state election websites easy to use, and include voter information targeted toward students. Although some states already provide some of the following, voter confusion could be curtailed if voter education websites from all 50 states each included: detailed information on the absentee ballot voting process (including identification requirements), application and submission deadlines, downloadable absentee ballot application forms that can be completed online, frequently asked questions, and a ballot application tracking system.

3) Provide a solution for the overwhelmed system. Complex voting rules that vary from state to state, an ever-mobile youth population, and increasing younger voter turnout nationwide are causing record numbers of voter registrations, absentee ballot applications, and voter questions that are overwhelming state and local offices. Recommendations to help fix the overwhelmed voting system:

  • Create a national student/absentee ballot application helpdesk and permanent website, with staffing from August to November during an election year. The website could offer an interactive State-by-State Guide to Absentee Voting (similar to the IOP’s 2004 guide, available in the voter education section of www.iop.harvard.edu) and a collection of “frequently asked questions.” Secretaries of State could also promote a singular national email address and toll-free number for voter questions.

“We are encouraged by the high number of younger voters in the 2004 elections, but roadblocks still exist which complicate the voting process for youth – particularly college students and others who vote by absentee ballot,” said IOP Director Philip Sharp. “We must improve and simplify registration and absentee voting procedures to help keep youth political participation high and to nurture good habits of citizenship in our nation’s young people.”