Point of View

Time to dust off 26th Amendment when it comes to college students, voting

October 7, 2013 

In the world of constitutional amendments, the 26th is the garnish for your $50 entrée. It is the middle-relief pitcher that comes in to face one batter every fourth game or so. It is the old high school yearbook sitting on a shelf, gathering dust. You know these things are there, but you don’t think of them as essential.

Yet the 26th Amendment is an important expansion of the right to vote. Acknowledging that males 21 and under made up the majority of casualties during the Vietnam War, this nation recognized that those over 18 possess the sufficient mental capacity to have a say in selecting their government leaders.

The language of the amendment parallels that of the 15th and 19th amendments, which guarantee voting rights regardless of race or sex, respectively. It protects all ages from discrimination, not just young people, and gives Congress the power to pass laws to protect against age discrimination in voting.

While it has receives little attention, it may be time to dust off the 26th. With all due respect to the Voting Rights Act, which protects citizens from racial discrimination, the 26th Amendment could be similarly important, particularly in relation to college student voters. If recent changes to the law have a discriminatory impact on a certain age group, then those changes could be overturned using this rarely cited amendment.

Residency challenges to college voters, whether done by election board policies or citizen “poll watchers,” may present such an issue.

Some argue – validly – that residency measures do not hurt college student voters at all. College students are still perfectly free to vote by absentee ballot, early voting or in-person, as long as it is done within their “home” precincts.

Others argue that college students are no more than vacationers, like guests in a hotel. They stay around for a brief period, maybe spend some money that helps the local economy, but otherwise cause traffic jams and make a general mess for the “locals.” Why should they dilute the influence of life-long residents who care more about the community?

And then, some just don’t think college students should vote based on the perception that they are all liberals (presumably because they don’t know any better).

However, the main purpose of voting is to provide all citizens influence over the policies where they live. College students are more than tourists in town for a football game. They represent a sizable group of diverse citizens who live in an area most of the year. Many of them have jobs, go to church and volunteer in the communities around their colleges. They are generally counted as residents in their college communities for U.S. Census purposes. And, most of them are over 18.

As an analogy, let’s consider the 95-year-old grandmother who lives in a nursing home. She likely rents a room, doesn’t pay property taxes there as she still owns her home in another county and may hope to move back at some point, even if the chances are slim.

But perhaps she feels she is a resident in her retirement community. Her mail comes to her retirement home address and she truly cares about the community around her, even if she doesn’t want to be there indefinitely. Let’s say she also is willing to give up her ability to vote in her “home” precinct in order to vote in her current community. Her rights, I believe most would agree, should be protected if she wanted to vote where she resides.

If laws hinder anyone’s ability to vote, then those laws should be carefully scrutinized. Women should not be discriminated against in voting, nor should the elderly, nor should people who live in a place 10 months a year as opposed to 12 but think of it as their home. In fact, the only Supreme Court case to involve the 26th Amendment seems to suggest so, as the court struck down a local government’s policy of having one set of standards for college voters and another set for everyone else.

Making sure people don’t vote twice and stopping voter fraud are important and legitimate goals. Stopping a group of people from voting on the perception that they will vote a certain way is not. College students deserve the right to vote under reasonable regulations, regardless of their vote choice.

Admittedly, college-aged students often make rash and unfounded decisions. If that were the standard to vote, however, most of us would be in trouble.

Todd Collins is an associate professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University, where he is director of WCU’s Public Policy Institute.

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