where should college students vote?

(Chicago) I am here for a meeting about voting and education laws and how they affect youth. One issue is college students’ voting. If your family home is in one community, but you reside in another town while you attend college, you generally have a legal right to choose either of these places to vote.

Sometimes state officials try to discourage students from voting in their college towns by disseminating scary messages about the consequences. For instance, Maine warns that voting in that state means establishing residency there, and if you are a resident, you must transfer your driver’s license to Maine. “Driving without a Maine license more than 90 days after you have established residency in the state is a crime.” I am very suspicious of these messages, especially when they come without any notice that you have a right to vote where you attend college and that voting is a valued civic act.

But even though you have a legal right to choose where to vote, you should make the choice responsibly. Voting is always an ethical decision, because it doesn’t actually pay off for the individual. (Too many other people get to vote as well.) It only makes sense to vote for what you think is right. And for residential college students, a preliminary question is: where is it right to vote?

One approach would go like this. First, pick the party and candidates that are best for the country. Then cast your vote wherever is (a) legal and (b) most effective. For example, vote in a swing state if you have that choice. The core ethical question is whom to support; where to vote is just a means to that end.

If you do not happen to be a college student who has a choice about where to register, you should advocate for students on your side of the political debate to vote where it counts most, and you should hope that students on the other side are not so sophisticated.

That’s one way of looking at the matter. It neglects a different set of considerations. People are eligible to vote in their communities (not anywhere they choose) because they have a stake there. Decisions made at the community level affect them. They are supposed to exercise their citizenship in full—not just voting for presidential and congressional candidates but also following the local news, discussing issues, and participating in public work so that their experiences inform their political decisions.

If that’s your view of citizenship, then the primary question is where you are most informed and committed. This may either be your hometown or your college town. Which one is in a battleground state should not be a major consideration.

A 2004 survey suggested that undergraduates shift from generally registering at home in their freshman year to generally registering in their college towns as seniors. If they should vote where they are most committed and knowledgeable, that is an appropriate trend.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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