The American Civil Liberties Union has been involved in more cases before the United States Supreme Court than any other institution except the government. We defend people’s rights in court every day, so we’re not surprised when people ask us for legal advice. In the past weeks, the ACLU of Maine has received numerous questions from college students and staff wanting to know, “Do students have the right to vote?”
The answer is yes, and it has been yes for more than 100 years. It is alarming that anyone would suggest otherwise. However, the road to securing voting rights for students has been a long one.
In 1882, the town of Waterville denied George Sanders the right to vote because of his status as a college student in the town. Sanders sued the town, and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court awarded him $25 in damages for being denied his legal right to vote. The court found that students, including George Sanders, could not be denied the right to vote based on their educational status.
This principle hasn’t changed in more than 100 years. Students have the right to vote where they attend school.
There have been challenges to students’ right to vote along the way. In 1972, the Gorham Board of Registration refused to register students to vote from the University of Maine at Gorham. This time, the parties settled before the suit reached the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, and students were allowed once again to register and vote.
In 1979, a Texas registrar asked students attending a predominantly black college to complete a questionnaire, which included invasive questions about their residency, property ownership and employment status. A lower federal court ruled that requiring students to complete the questionnaire resulted in unequal treatment with respect to those who were able to register and, thus, unlawfully abridged the students’ right to vote. The
U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision in the case of Symm v. United States (1979).
It isn’t the voting registrar’s business where you are employed, whether you own property, or whether you pay taxes because those issues –- property ownership, taxation, employment –- have nothing to do with the right to vote.
In summary, all legal precedents in Maine and before the United States Supreme Court uphold the right of students to vote. You do not need a voter ID to vote in Maine. Maine has same-day voter registration. You can register on Election Day and vote.
Students have exactly the same rights and obligations under Maine law as all other eligible voters. And directing overt or implied threats about criminal enforcement of other laws to students looking to vote is coercive and misleading, at the least.
Last year, Secretary of State Charlie Summers sent a threatening letter to the homes of parents of more than 200 students attending school in Maine. He enclosed a form designed to “unenroll” students. The ACLU received numerous calls from parents and students alike. We advised them that they have the legal right to vote where they live. Scared of prosecution, more than 100 students decided to fill out the unenrollment form anyway, deciding it was too risky to vote in Maine.
Of those brave students who decided to defy the secretary of state’s letter and vote in Maine in 2011 anyway, not one of them was prosecuted. That’s because not one of them had broken the law. All of them had voted legally in Maine. All of them were then and are now guaranteed the right to vote under the law and the U.S. Constitution.
A family member told me the other day that voting doesn’t matter. I disagree. If it didn’t matter, politicians wouldn’t work so hard to convince certain demographics not to do it. The sad fact is that some politicians don’t want students to vote. But, voting is power in a democracy. So vote if you are unhappy with politicians who say you can’t. Or vote in hope of positive change. Or vote just because you can. The ACLU will be there to defend any attack on your right to do so.
Shenna Bellows is executive director of the ACLU of Maine Foundation.