This Fall Semester, College Campuses Are the Laboratories of Democracy

As millions of college students return to campus, they are going back to a “new normal.” Today’s students have a wide range of abnormal responsibilities — from wearing masks to social distancing and resisting the urge to party on weekends.

While the new normal is an adjustment, students must seize the opportunity and be prepared to take on duties that extend beyond normal coursework. With college campuses serving as laboratories for a public-health experiment, students can similarly be the guinea pigs for electoral reform.

States have historically been characterized as “laboratories of democracy,” to quote Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Today, however, America’s college campuses should be used to experiment with improvements to the democratic process. This is an especially important role to fill now, given that entrenched politicians are increasingly unlikely to repair our civic infrastructure.

Schools are already paving the way with innovative approaches to public-policy issues that Congress has failed to address. Purdue University, for example, has pioneered a “return on investment” strategy to students loans, pegging payments to their graduates’ future earnings. Portland State University is exploring the “disarming” of its police. Meanwhile, American University’s green initiatives have nearly eliminated the school’s carbon footprint. Indeed, it is clear that academia can step up when the government is unable or unwilling to act.

And we desperately need academia to act. During the 2020 legislative session, at least 15 states considered bills that restricted voting access, despite the progress of pro-voter reforms of recent years. Students themselves, long targets of restrictive voting laws, remain in the crosshairs of such regressive efforts. In recent years, multiple states have passed restrictive voter-identification laws that exclude student IDs from the list of accepted voter IDs.

Others have taken more creative approaches. New Hampshire implemented a de-facto poll tax by requiring state students who wish to vote to be “domiciled” there — a designation that may require out-of-state students to pay for a new in-state driver license and register their car in New Hampshire. At the same time, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds came under fire for scheduling a special election that affected districts covering most of Iowa State University’s campus over the summer — when most students aren’t even on campus.

In the absence of legislative reform, students need to be the change they wish to see in the world. To that end, college campuses are now applying the notion of voter registration as an opt-out process to other relevant contexts, tying it to institutionalized touch points that frequently interface with students on campus. Here’s one way to do it: Ask students about voter registration during new student orientations and move-in days. Another way is to incorporate voting-related information into online class registration portals, some of which even require students to “acknowledge the recommendation of civic engagement” in order to register for classes.

Another potential area of reform is ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to rank multiple candidates by order of preference and uses a series of instant run-offs to ensure a victor with an outright majority. The innovative process made headlines in Maine during the 2018 midterms and was approved as the new electoral system in New York City via ballot initiative in 2019. And it is gaining steam on college campuses: The Yale College Council recently added itself to the list of student associations using ranked-choice voting to carry out their elections.

By fostering discussions about voter registration, schools like Northwestern University have pushed their student voter registration rate above 95 percent. Of course, students can only do so much. They need to be supported by administrators and professors, who are the real levers of change on campus. Indeed, college administrations are quite powerful, as they showed earlier this year, when Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology successfully took on the Trump administration over its restrictive visa requirements for foreign students.

Today, we must continue to strengthen our democratic process, and the fall semester presents an unprecedented opportunity to secure real, lasting change. With students and administrators joining forces, college campuses can be America’s laboratories of democracy not just this year, but for decades to come.


Campbell Streator is the executive director of Every Vote Counts. Philip Hinkes, a senior at Yale University, serves as president of EVC’s Yale chapter. James Tedesco, a junior at the University of Vermont, serves as president of EVC’s UVM chapter.

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