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Voting on campus: At Haverford College, they want to, but can’t

How one college's quest to get an on-campus polling place highlights a larger issue nationally: With the importance of millennial voting growing, college campuses have become a bigger battle ground for registering voters and making sure they get to the polls.

Incoming Haverford College freshman Matthew Dodds, left, from Princeton, NJ, gets help from Haverford professor Zach Oberfield, center, in filling out his voter registration form on the first day check-in for freshmen at Haverford. Oberfield has been working on the effort to get an on-campus polling place.
Incoming Haverford College freshman Matthew Dodds, left, from Princeton, NJ, gets help from Haverford professor Zach Oberfield, center, in filling out his voter registration form on the first day check-in for freshmen at Haverford. Oberfield has been working on the effort to get an on-campus polling place.Read moreMichael Bryant / Staff Photographer

Haverford College and some nearby residents for years have been trying to get a polling place closer to or on the grassy Main Line campus.

Students — most of whom do not have cars and who make up the majority of voters in the precinct — must travel about a mile and a half, partially on a road without sidewalks, to get to the polling place, Coopertown Elementary, which isn't even in the same precinct.

Each proposal they've made to the Delaware County board of elections has been flatly rejected. Not enough parking. Parking too far from the entrance. A busy road.

Jack Stollsteimer, the lawyer representing petitioners, alleges the reason is more sinister:  a largely Republican county government that is far from eager to make voting easier for a Democratic-leaning college campus.

"There is no other reason to deny this petition other than that the Republican Party is trying to discourage college students from voting," Stollsteimer said.

"Jack's full of hot air," retorted Andy Reilly, chairman of the county's Republican Party. "From my end, I know there's no Republican undue influence."

A battleground nationally

As colleges around the area ramp up efforts to get the vote out, Haverford's experience isn't isolated. Nationally, college campuses have been fighting to make voting more convenient for students — and facing obstacles.

In this year's highly competitive midterm elections, political observers think such troubles could potentially make a difference in close races around the nation.

"Youth are a pivotal electoral constituency and partisan elected officials who oversee our elections make it more difficult for youth to vote if they think they'll vote the other way," said Peter Levine, associate dean for research at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. "We're the only developed democracy where elections are administered by partisan election officials."

In Florida, early voting was banned at colleges by Secretary of State Ken Detzner until a federal judge ruled this year that the prohibition revealed "a stark pattern of discrimination" and was unconstitutional.

Levine, who submitted an expert report in the Florida case, said the ban was "burdensome on college campuses and other people who worked around colleges."

That's not all. Throughout the country, Levine said, there's been a pattern of election officials sending threatening letters to students: "They'll say, 'If you try to vote in your college town and you're not really eligible, it could jeopardize your parents' welfare or you could lose your in-state tuition.' "

In Baltimore, students campaigning to get a polling place on campus were told they would lose their scholarships if they registered at the campus address, said Mike Burns, director of Fair Elections Center's Campus Vote Project, which helps secure on-campus voting sites.

Local officials, Burns said, sometimes are reluctant to ask residents to vote on a college campus or fail to see students as part of the community.

Some barriers are more systemic, experts said. Michigan allows absentee voting — unless it's the first year that a voter is casting a ballot. This impacts young people; nearly 30 percent of college students eligible to vote for the first time cast absentee ballots in 2012.

Pennsylvania, meanwhile, does not allow early voting. Voters in the state can only vote via absentee ballot if they have an "excuse," and same-day voter registration is not allowed.

Pennsylvania ranked 45th in Harvard and Sydney Universities' Electoral Integrity Project, which gave low marks to the state's voting laws.

Meanwhile, seven states where young people vote have bold measures such as voting by mail and same-day voter registration.

In a survey on the 2016 election by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 19 percent of young people with college experience who didn't vote said transportation was a reason; 20 percent cited registration problems; and 15 percent noted inconvenient hours or polling locations.

At Cheyney University, a historically black state school partially in Delaware County, attorney Michael Power represented students in a 2008 petition for an on-campus poll in a newly created precinct after plans were unveiled to place it in a church over a mile away.

"They were trying to disenfranchise the Cheyney students by making them travel further," Power said.

The county board of elections didn't allow the poll on campus but placed it at an adjacent township building that students can easily walk to and that Power had presented as an acceptable alternative.

More recently, Kutztown University in Berks County lost its polling place after residents complained it wasn't convenient and commissioners noted low student turnout in municipal elections. Students lobbied to get the poll back, and the state university offered several campus locations. But by a 2-1 vote, a majority of Republican county commissioners in 2016 decided to leave the polling place at the local township building, a few miles from campus.

"We have accepted it at this point," said Matt Santos, vice president for university relations, "but kept the door open if there is ever an opportunity again."

Every reasonably sized college that wants a polling place should have one, Burns said, given that they serve many young voters who aren't likely to have access to cars.

"Why should it not be as easy as possible," agreed Mark Ratliff, of New Jersey, whose son, John, 18, registered to vote last month at Haverford. "Why not?"

Stakes are high

Though Haverford College is in a congressional district that is seen as a likely pickup for Democrats, students there will also cast ballots in gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races in a battleground state.

"Look, Conor Lamb won his special election by 730 votes," former Gov. Ed Rendell said of the Pennsylvania Democrat's House race in March. "My guess is in Haverford, they've got close to 1,000 potential voters."

Rendell said he thought that the Pennsylvania secretary of state should look into the Haverford polling place dispute.

With the stakes so high, Democrats are relying on a sea of young voters nationally to take back the U.S. House and win gubernatorial and state legislative seats.

A Harvard poll in March found that 37 percent of Americans between 18 and 29 said they are "definitely" voting in the midterm elections, compared with 23 percent who said that four years ago. This boost was largely driven by young Democrats: 51 percent said they would "definitely" vote, while 36 percent of young Republicans expressed that same level of enthusiasm.

"Although we're not expecting young voters to participate at the same level as Gen Xers or baby boomers or members of the Silent Generation," said John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, "any increase in their participation is likely to help a Democratic candidate."

Locally, there are signs that young people are more interested in voting than in past years. Pennsylvania saw a bigger increase in youth voter registration after the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., than any other state. And in Philadelphia, voter turnout among millennials has gone up in the last three elections.

Volpe sees a major realignment coming. Millennials saw "what happens when young people don't participate" in the 2016 elections, he said, and want to change course.

"We're on the verge," he said, "of a once-in-a-generation attitudinal shift about the importance of efficiency of politics and government and voting."

Voting sites vary by campus

At some local campuses, it will be easier for students to vote.

An informal Inquirer survey of  colleges in Pennsylvania and New Jersey found 13 with on-campus polling places. Eleven more have polls within a few blocks, including Bryn Mawr College, where students vote at a nearby church, and Widener University, where they vote at an adjacent elementary school.

Ten others reported polls farther away and said they ran shuttles. That includes Villanova University, also in Delaware County, where students have several designated off-campus voting sites. Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania have polls on campus; Temple does not.

Sometimes, a community seeks a campus.

"We were asked by the city and the county if Rutgers could serve as a polling place for the city of Camden, and we readily agreed," said Rutgers-Camden spokesperson Mike Sepanic.

Other times, it's the college. Muhlenberg had been unhappy that students waited hours at its assigned polling place, a local high school, said Michele Moser Deegan, a political science professor. So professors at the Allentown college developed a relationship with the county election board, supplied students to work the polls, and successfully lobbied to get on-campus polls.

Student voter participation varies widely by campus. Some cast absentee ballots at home; others register at their campus address and vote locally.

In the 2016 presidential election, nearly 89 percent of the 589 Haverford students registered locally voted, said Zach Oberfield, an associate professor of political science. Turnout was smaller in the 2017 general election and 2018 primary.

But Haverford faculty and students who have pushed for on-campus voting believe it could grow.

Benjamin Roodman, 18, a freshman, who registered to vote at Haverford, said he would "be slightly less certain" he'd vote if he had to travel to Coopertown Elementary.

"I would definitely feel more engaged if it was here on campus," said Roodman, of Washington, D.C.

The move would make it easier for residents, too, said Maggie Wright, 68, a Democratic committeewoman who lives in the precinct.

"We could walk," she said. "Right now, we have to drive."

The college currently runs shuttles, but it means students who have heavy academic loads must commit an hour or more to ride, vote, and return.

Delaware County political battle

Haverford's most recent round of efforts to bring a poll to campus began in 2017 when the college supported a proposal to use the nearby Haverford Friends Meeting House. The election board rejected it, citing lack of parking and traffic on Buck Lane Road. Last September, the college offered its gymnasium and garnered support for the move from the two local neighborhoods — Haverford Village and Valley View — that are in the precinct; the board said parking, 148 yards away, wasn't close enough to the entrance and voters would have to cross a 13-mph campus road with speed bumps.

The 1,300-student college countered by offering golf-cart service and an officer to direct traffic.

Still, the proposal was rejected.

Haverford officials hope a new application, which would relocate the poll to the campus facilities building with closer parking and no road to cross, will be approved when the board meets later this month.

"This change," Kim Benston, president of Haverford, wrote to the board, "will serve not only the majority of the voters in the 5-3 precinct, who are students at Haverford College, but also non-student voters whose experience the college guarantees will be easy and pleasant."

The election board has been mum. Laureen T. Hagan, chief clerk of the Bureau of Elections, said  it wouldn't be appropriate for the board "to comment … on any matters currently pending before the board."

Last November, two Democrats won seats on the county council. But the GOP-controlled council rejected their suggested nominees for chairman of the election board, which under the home-rule charter goes to the party with the most votes in the previous election. Instead, it installed a registered Democrat who is a former Republican Party municipal leader.

In May, the election board tabled Haverford's latest proposal after the new chairman expressed concerns.

Democratic County Councilman Brian Zidek said the Haverford request is being held hostage in a political power play and should be approved.

"We want to make it easier for people to vote," he said, "whether they're 18 or 80."