September 17, 2008

N.Y. Registration: Reducing Vote’s Impact?

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The voter registration tables provided by the Cornell Democrats and College Republicans are a familiar sight to most Cornellians, and many feel that students helping other students “get out the vote” is a positive service to the campus community. But when out-of-state students register to vote in Tompkins County, are they potentially diminishing their political power? Are they affecting campaign strategies and election outcomes?
Elizabeth W. Kree, co-commissioner of the Tompkins County Board of Elections, explained that New York State law has given college students the right to register to vote using their college addresses since the mid-1980s. However, to the politically active on campus, the decision of out-of-staters to vote in-state has a strategic motive.
Terry Moynihan ’11, director of public relations for the Cornell Democrats, shed light on how the organization helps such students make their registration decisions.
“We will register anyone who wants to register in-state,” he said, “but if a student were to ask us where they should vote, it would depend on whether their home state was a swing state or not.”
For a Democrat from a swing state like Ohio or Virginia, Moynihan explained, it would make more sense to vote using his or her home address, since Tompkins County and New York State are overwhelmingly likely to vote blue.
Moynihan also said that, since election law allows individuals to register to vote in two different states, it might not be a bad idea for individuals to double register, in case a problem arose with an absentee ballot.
“The key point,” he said, “is getting students to register to vote, period … this is an Ivy League school and we’re supposed to be the leaders of the future.”
Ray Mensah ’11, chair of the College Republicans, said that the group maintains a neutral position when registering students to vote but emphasized the fact that students spend eight or nine months out of the year at school rather than at home.
“Students spend the majority of the year here,” he said, “and they therefore have an interest in local elections and politics … I would like to reference the many times that Cornell students have protested conditions on campus or in Collegetown, and encourage these students to use their fundamental civic duty of voting.”
For some students, however, ties to home remain strong enough to justify registering to vote there.
“Even though I’m a student in this community, my interests and investment in my home area of Sonoma County outweigh my attachments to the Ithaca area,” Pyrs Carvolth ’11 said. “It’s very important to me to be able to vote on propositions and elections at home.”
Mensah expressed doubt as to whether the number of out-of-state students who register to vote in a particular state is large enough to affect the outcome of an election.
Prof. Theodore J. Lowi, government, shared these doubts.
“For such a small number of votes to be a deciding factor, you would have to have a situation similar to that of Florida in 2000, and the chances of that happening are very small,” Lowi said, calling the votes of such students “a drop of water in the ocean.”
He said, “The times when I’ve seen students really making a difference is when they get active in local politics by running for city council and assembly.”
The key factor for out-of-state students considering whether to register to vote at home or in Tompkins County, according to Lowi, is whether they value a voice in politics and policy happening at home over a role in Tompkins County politics.
Both the Cornell Democrats and College Republicans are hosting upcoming voter registration events for students who want to register to vote in Tompkins County or apply for an absentee ballot. The Democrats’ table is set up nearly every weekday on Ho Plaza, and the Republicans’ voter registration schedule will be posted on their website. Interested students should move quickly, however, since the registration and absentee ballot deadlines are both fast approaching.