Given the attention paid to college students during the 2008 presidential election, now might seem like an odd time for lawmakers to take steps to increase student turnout. But that’s exactly what Senator Dick Durbin (D–IL) has proposed. Durbin’s Student Voter Act, which is currently before Congress, would mandate that all universities receiving federal funds—that is, just about every university—offer voter registration with their course sign-up systems. Although Durbin’s bill is well intentioned, it nonetheless constitutes an unnecessary intrusion on private universities.
The goal of the law—increasing voter registration among college-aged citizens—is something that most people can support. But in reality, the bill seeks to apply a solution to a problem that does not exist. According to national exit polls, voter turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds has seen gains in every presidential election since 1996. There is no shortage of opportunities to register to vote in the United States, especially for college students during an election year. The bill is high on populism, but low on substance.
Moreover, the law would have a net loss for the activism that fuels political discourse on campuses nationwide. Without the registrar’s office serving as a de facto DMV, students are compelled to take democracy into their own hands, registering their peers by tabling at Bartlett in the lead-up to the election. Efforts to increase numerical participation through a mandated system would instead sap the energy from a system currently predicated on student involvement.
The response to this argument is always the same: Only universities receiving public funds will be subject to the law, so if they have a problem, they just shouldn’t take the government’s money. This rationale, however, represents a false choice, as universities depend on government funds for financial aid and science research.
Needless to say, the U of C won’t be turning down hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money just to avoid adding a link on cMore. But it’s clear from past examples, like the military recruiting on college campuses, that such stipulations can compromise universities’ independence. The government should not take advantage of its relationships with universities, nor should it use them to grandstand about nonexistent problems.
The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and two additional Editorial Board members.