Education Resources

Should We Dump the Absentee Ballot?

Voters in Norwalk, Calif., wait either to register to vote or to cast their absentee ballot for the 2004 presidential election (Photo: Robyn Beck / AFP-Getty Images)

Shawn Rubin was excited about the opportunity to experience his first time, Constitution-style.

Rubin, 20, a New York University student from Edison, N.J., had always taken to heart the importance of being an active citizen. Now he was going to vote in the Democratic primary.

But he couldn't figure out how to file an absentee ballot from New York City.

"Voting, it's borderline impossible," Rubin reported. "The multiple forms online, the specific method for printing and folding. Just getting my ballot was a difficult process in itself."

Due to the longstanding system that requires Americans to vote in precincts linked to their home addresses, the absentee ballot is the only practical way for many of America's 18 million college students to vote. A debate is growing between those who feel disenfranchised by absentee balloting requirements and those who say it is the most reasonable way for college students to vote.

Gentry Lange, a Seattle-area voting rights activist who once ran for a county executive post on the Green Party ticket, protests absentee and mail ballot voting on the grounds that such votes aren't secret, secure, or accurately counted.

"I believe that college students are at a severe disadvantage, as are members of the military," he wrote in an e-mail. "Perhaps colleges should be allowed to form their own special type of precinct that would phone in vote details to all the appropriate jurisdictions after the local precinct has counted them publicly in the open, on paper, and posted the totals for all to see before reporting those totals."

Unfortunately for Rubin, his first time would have to wait.

He received his ballot three days before the New Jersey primary. It would require a stamp. He tried waiting on a long line at his local post office, since he couldn't figure out how much postage to put on the envelope. But he gave up before reaching the window. He did carry the sealed ballot envelope in his backpack for a week after voting day.

But one study put Rubin much in the minority: college students reported little difficulty in voting by mail in the 2004 presidential election. Two-thirds of college students are registered in their hometowns, and thus must vote by absentee ballot, according to a study conducted in 2004 by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning. Nearly 89 percent of the students who voted by absentee ballot reported that they found it "very easy" or "fairly easy" to obtain and cast a ballot. Only 2.9 percent found either or both of the tasks "very difficult," according to the report.

Many people actually prefer to vote by absentee ballot, according to New York University politics professor Joshua Tucker.

"While it would certainly be easier for college students to vote if we had a reasonable system of Internet voting, I wouldn't say they were at a disadvantage," Tucker said in an e-mail. "There are lots of people who have a difficult time getting to the polls, which is why absentee balloting was implemented."

College student Conor O'Donnell, 21, for example, doesn't expect to have trouble voting by absentee ballot in his hometown of Warrington, Pa.

"I voted in the 2006 midterm elections by absentee ballot, and I didn't seem to have any problems," O'Donnell said.

Rubin is now determined to vote in the general election in November.

"I'd like to vote in the actual election, but I think I might go home to do it," he said. "Taking an hour and a half train ride just to vote, maybe get a home cooked meal, is worth the trip if it means I don't have to deal with this absentee ballot."

From NYU Livewire.

Andrew Fisher studies journalism and history at New York University.