For Freshmen. By Freshmen.
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Aug 29 2017
by Katherine Smith

A Comprehensive Guide to Voting While in College

By Katherine Smith - Aug 29 2017

If you are unhappy with the current political system, no matter what side of the spectrum you are on, the most impactful thing you can do is register to vote. This is actually really easy to do. Each state has its own guidelines and deadlines for voter registration, but all states typically follow similar processes. With few exceptions, you have the option of registering to vote in-person at your county clerk’s office, at a voter registration drive or by mail. Some states have the option of online registration as well, but this is not yet universal. Additionally, nine states and D.C. have automatic voter registration, which means that if you received your driver’s license in one of these states, you were automatically registered to vote (Alaska’s automatic registration is the only exception as it is conducted via the Permanent Fund Dividend program rather than the DMV).

One of the primary reasons college students do not vote is due to the conflicting information they receive about the process. Prior to the 2016 presidential election, fliers masquerading as a “legal advisory” appeared on the campus of Bates College, falsely claiming that students much change their driver's license registration in order to vote. In reality, students are largely free to choose whether they want to vote in the state in which they attend college, or where their parents reside. Even though you may leave campus during breaks and for the summer, the court has ruled in Williams v. Salerno that the state cannot deny you the right to vote on the basis that a dorm is not a “fixed, personal, or principal home.” Thus, the decision on where to register is almost entirely one of personal preference. Most people register to vote where they feel most invested in the community (politically, socially, and economically)––but it is up to you to decide whether that is at home or at school. Deadlines for how many days before an election you must register to vote, per state, are given below. 

  • Colorado: 22 days if registering through a voter registration drive or 8 days if registering via mail or online*
  • Connecticut: 5 days before a primary election and 7 days before a general election*
  • Delaware: 4th Saturday before a primary or general election and 10 days before a special election
  • Iowa: 10 days before a general election and 11 days before any other type of election*
  • Louisiana: 20 days if registering online or 30 days if registering in-person or via mail
  • Maine: 21 days if registering through a voter registration drive or via mail. In-person registration at the county clerk's office continues up until the polls close on election day
  • Massachusetts: 20 days for all elections except special town meetings where the registration deadline is 10 days
  • Missouri: 4th Wednesday prior to election
  • Montana: 30 days. In-person registration continues through election day
  • Nebraska: 3rd Friday before election day if registering by mail or the 2nd Friday before election day at 6 PM if registering at the county clerk’s office
  • Nevada: 31 days if registering at the DMV or by mail. Registration at the county clerk’s office continues for an additional 10 days
  • Oklahoma: 5 PM the Wednesday before election day
  • Utah: 30 days if registering by mail and 7 days if registering in-person or online
  • Vermont: Up to and including election day
  • Washington: 29 days if registering by mail or online and 8 days if registering in-person

*Same-day registration is available

28 states allow you to vote mail-in absentee without an excuse, 20 require an excuse and 3 conduct all elections by mail, so absentee voting is not necessary in those states. If you are attending college outside of your home district, you will likely qualify to vote absentee. Although most states allow you to request an absentee ballot online, you should verify with your state's specific guidelines regarding absentee ballots and reach out to an election official if you have any questions.

Another important issue is that of voter ID. 18 states and D.C. do not have any voter identification requirement. This means that when you go to your polling location to cast your ballot, election officials will not require you to show your driver’s license or other photo ID. The remaining 32 states have some form of voter ID law in place, with 7 of these being strict photo ID states. If you have a driver’s license issued by the state in which you are attending college, that will satisfy the ID requirement. However, if your driver’s license is from a state other than the one where you attend college, it may not be valid. If this is the case, you may be able to apply for a free voter identification card with the state board of elections – especially if you are planning to vote in Arizona, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee or Texas, all of which require photo ID to vote but do not accept student ID.

Even if you do not have the required ID when you go to the polls, you are still able to cast a ballot. If you are turned away by an election official because they claim that you cannot vote unless you bring the proper documentation, call your state election board or civil rights division. You have the right to cast a provisional ballot in a federal election (and, in some states, state and local elections) under the Help America Vote Act – denying this right is a violation of federal law. In order for your vote to be counted, however, you must follow the procedures set by the state. The chart below shows you how each state handles provisional ballots.

Created by Katie Smith using

Although you have the right to vote in the state where you attend college, there may be unforeseen consequences that accompany that decision. Because where you vote is linked with residency, some states may require that you get a driver’s license in that state as part of the establishment of residency. You can check the laws in your state on the Campus Vote Project website and reach out to your local or state election board for confirmation. 

If at any point during the process of voting––from registration to the time you cast your ballot––you have any questions or are unsure of the rules and regulations involved, you should reach out to your state election board for clarification. There are also nonprofits like the Campus Vote Project, Rock the Vote and the Brennan Center for Justice that can provide you with more information about the process and answer questions regarding issues such as voting rights.

Lead Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Katherine Smith - Barnard College

Katie is a freshman at Barnard and plans on majoring in political science. She was (and still is) an avid debater and never backs down from an argument, much to her parents dismay. One of the first things she did after getting her college email address was access all of the databases through Columbia since JSTOR is her form of Netflix. You can find somewhat sporadically posted content on her Instagram @katiesnappy or follow her scholarly pursuits through her nonprofit, Open Access Debate.

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