Bill could mandate that U of C provide voter registration options with course signups

U of C Registrar, who worked to implement similar legislation in California, said change could require significant amount of work.

By Nathalie Gorman

Correction appended

The Student VOTER Act, a bill introduced by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), would require all universities that receive federal funding, including the U of C, to include voter registration options when students register for classes.

The bill, which Durbin introduced in the Senate last summer, is intended to increase notoriously low voter registration rates among young people nationwide. Congresswoman Schakowsky (D-IL) and Congressman Steven Latourette (R-OH) introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives last month.

According to Durbin’s website, only 47 percent of 18-24 year olds voted in the 2004 presidential election, and only slightly higher in last year’s election.

The bill would require a change to current campus policy, which already tries to promote voter registration in other ways.

Scott Sudduth, the University’s associate vice president for federal relations, explained current University efforts encouraging students to vote. “It’s mandated that we distribute state voter registration forms to each degree-seeking student who attends a class on a campus,” he said. “We can meet that good faith effort by e-mailing students with links to the state forms for voter registration. And our community, the University of Chicago and the higher education community, supported those provisions.” There are also voter registration forms available in the registrar’s office.

With regard to the new bill, Sudduth said, “We’ve not had an opportunity to look at it yet but certainly in principle we support efforts to not only encourage but to make voter registration as seamless as possible, yet as accurate as possible. We would certainly look at the bill in that context.”

University Registrar Gabriel G. Olszewski worked to implement a similar piece of state legislation at the University of California San Diego (USCD) before coming to the University of Chicago. “There was a state law that required all the institutions to do the same thing that Durbin was proposing,” Olszewski said. He added that the California law did not give students the option to register to vote, but let the state registrar of voters mail students registration cards, which students could sign and mail.

“What they were aiming for was to make it easier for students to register to vote,” he said. “The practices at UCSD before were very similar to what happens on this campus. We would send an e-mail about how to register to vote and there would be links. But the state didn’t think that was good enough.”

Olzsewski added that California, like Illinois, requires an actual ink signature to register voters, which adds an additional level of complication to registering students. This was why UCSD students still had to receive a card, sign it, and send it back in order to be registered.

He also said that, given his experience, the process of creating such a registration program might be easier at Chicago. “In that particular case at San Diego, we did not have as robust a confirmation process as the University of Chicago has,” referring to the annual address confirmation process required for U of C students each year, which could be used as a mechanism for promoting voter registration.

“But that said, it still will be a significant amount of development work…. There’s still a lot of pieces. We’d have to create new fields or a new mini-database behind the system to contain this information,” he said.

The real question remains whether the legislation would actually make a difference in the number of 18-24 year olds who vote. On this, Olzsewski was uncertain. “We were only in the process of implementing it when I left, so we didn’t know whether it would have an effect. We didn’t know if it would translate into more students voting,” he said.

Correction: The original version of this article conflated the roles of California college registrars and the state’s registrar of voters. While the college registrar collects student data to send to the state, the state’s registrar mails voter registration cards.