Point of View

Lawmakers throwing obstacles into path of dutiful, young Americans

May 23, 2013 

In the fall of 2004, as the Tuesday after the first Monday in November fast approached, I was settling into my freshman year at UNC-Chapel Hill. I was writing for the Daily Tar Heel, working a job back in Raleigh most weekends, and taking more classes than I should have.

The toughest of those courses was Chief Romantic Poets, which I’d picked in the belief that college undergraduates walked around quoting poetry to one another all the time. I figured it would be socially useful to have melodramatic British verse at the ready.

That conception of college life proved misguided, but the class was inspiring and intense. It also had a strict attendance requirement.

So when Election Day rolled around and I realized I’d need to drive back to Wake County to cast my first ballot, I asked the professor for an excused absence.

He glared at me intently, with the same face he used during the fiery parts of Blake or Milton. “Go,” he said at last. “Make your voice heard.”

I thought of that professor – and all the make-up work from his class – when I read Senate Bill 667, cynically titled the “Equalize Voter Rights Act.”

It would require college students to vote in their home counties or forfeit their status as dependents, levying a sizable new tax burden on parents. Students could request absentee ballots or make the drive home. But the most sensible option – registering in their campus communities, where they spend at least eight months each year for at least four years – would be effectively closed.

Sen. Bill Cook, the measure’s primary sponsor, says he wants to “protect the integrity of North Carolina’s entire electoral process.” The unique threat that college ballots pose to our democratic republic has never been made clear.

At a residential school, most students live almost full-time on or near campus. At the same time, they remain dependent on parents – painfully dependent, as my parents can attest.

Why Cook finds these two circumstances irreconcilable, or a menace to democracy, is hard to fathom.

Jay Delancy of the N.C. Voter Integrity Project was a little more plainspoken in his defense of the proposal. “College students can be manipulated like pawns,” he said. “These bills will protect college students from such abuse.”

While it’s gracious of him and Cook to defend the state’s bookish youths from their own stupidity, we should be wary of anyone who claims to know a pawn from a thoughtful citizen. History has shown there’s a world of mischief in distinguishing wrongheaded from righteous ballots.

Cook is right to call voting “a sacred duty” and wrong to throw obstacles into the path of the dutiful. Hardship is not a synonym for virtue, and making voting more difficult does not make it more sacred.

College students should be able to vote where they live and study, and their parents should be spared an innovative new poll tax.

While romantic poetry didn’t prove a boon to my collegiate social life, much of it has stuck with me.

“Know (and the truth shall kindle thy young mind),” Coleridge wrote. “What Nature makes thee mourn, she bids thee heal!”

In other words, my collegiate friends, vote! And remember the people who didn’t want you to.

Eric Johnson, a former editor of the Daily Tar Heel at UNC-Chapel Hill, lives in Chapel Hill.

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