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How much influence should college students have over local elections?


How much influence should college students have over local elections?

Sep 15, 2023 | 5:50 am ET
By Clayton Henkel
How much influence should college students have over local elections?
Photo: Getty Image

In the waning days of the 2023 legislative session, there seems to be no shortage of ideas of how to reshape North Carolina’s elections. From ballot signature verification to giving the General Assembly appointment power to the State Board of Elections, Republican legislators maintain their changes will instill voter confidence in the system.

On Tuesday, Rep. Jeff Zenger (R-Forsyth) floated an idea proposed by his daughter to the House Committee on Election Law and Campaign Finance Reform.

Zenger explained how his daughter while a student at Appalachian State, actively worked to register university students to vote.

How much influence should college students have over local elections?
House Committee on Election Law and Campaign Finance Reform (Photo: NCGA video stream)

“That’s great. We want people to vote,” said Zenger. “[But] she said, the problem is that college students don’t understand the issues of the local politics or the local people. And she says, effectively, when you have a big university in a college town, the college students effectively have the ability to completely eliminate essentially the representation of the local people because they don’t understand the issues.”

“Sometimes they’re just voting, you know, for whatever reason.”

Zenger said he and his daughter kicked around an idea that if a young person is being claimed as dependent on somebody’s taxes and is a legal voter, then they should have to vote in the district where they are claimed as a dependent.

“Everybody would still have the ability to vote, but you wouldn’t effectively box people out in local elections,” Zenger explained. “I just throw that out there. I thought it was a really fantastic observation and point.”

“Are you saying your daughter’s proposal was that those students who are dependent to parents in another area of the state would have to vote in that district? Would that be just for those municipal local elections or would that be for all elections?” inquired Rep. Cynthia Ball (D-Wake).

“Well, that’s open for discussion. I think that the real impact is the super local elections like the town councils and that kind of stuff is really where the impact is,” said Zenger.

How much influence should college students have over local elections?
Rep. Jeff Zenger (L) and Rep. Cynthia Ball (R) (Photos: NCGA)

Ball, whose district includes parts of NC State University and Meredith College, wasn’t sold on the idea.

“In regards to that, a lot of college students who are dependents do live in the area and are very active in the municipal concerns and so forth. So, I would just question as to whether or not that would be disenfranchising them from the area in which they really live,” said Ball.

Zenger said it’s different in smaller college towns.

“In a place like Chapel Hill or in Raleigh here with North Carolina State, there’s so much population here. It’s not going to make a difference,” suggested Zenger.

“Her observation was in Boone where you have 24,000 students, that makes a huge difference.”

Rep. David Willis (R-Union) hoped they could find some middle ground.

“As a former student of Appalachian State, I can tell you I was there when we elected the first college student to the town council quite a number of years ago,” Willis said.

“Maybe there’s kind of a compromise between the two schools of thought there. I think those who have signed a lease and are living there year-round obviously would be considered as residents like most, those living in temporary dorms, you know, who are just there part time. Maybe there’s a way to parse that out.”

Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) reminded the committee that the Supreme Court had already issued an opinion on voting and college residency.

In 1979, the High Court upheld a college student’s right to register to vote at either their home address or their college address.

How much influence should college students have over local elections?
Then Sen. Bob Rucho (File photo)

Not the first time a legislator’s child influences NC voting rights

It’s not uncommon for legislators to bring forth an idea for a bill inspired by their own children.

A decade ago, as the Republican-controlled Senate debated a massive elections bill, Senator Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg) advanced a proposal to end the pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-old voters in North Carolina.

Pre-registration does not help one party over another, it simply promotes civic engagement at an early age.

Then-Senator Josh Stein (D-Wake) asked Rucho why he would want to eliminate the practice.

Rucho justified the measure by explaining his own teenage son was confused about when he would actually be eligible to cast a ballot.

Pre-registration was eventually restored by the courts. Many teens now pre-register to vote when they apply for their driver’s license through the Division of Motor Vehicles.

Teens must indicate on their voter registration application that they are at least 16 years-old and understand that they must in fact be 18 years-old on or before Election Day to cast their ballot.

As for college students and Zenger’s proposal, the NC State Board of Elections is also clear.

College students may register and vote in the county where they go to school.

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They do suggest if a student plans to return to their hometown after graduation, they should remain registered there.

And if a student registers to vote in their college town, that will effectively cancel out any previous registration.

Of course, college students, like everyone else in North Carolina, will need a photo ID to vote in the next election cycle.

Reimagining ‘run, hide, fight’

Hours after Tuesday’s elections committee adjourned, David Hogg, a survivor of the 2018 Parkland School shooting in Florida, was at the North Carolina General Assembly speaking with college students about the power of the ballot box.

“We grew up hearing that to survive a school shooting, we had to run, hide and fight,” Hogg said.

“We need to reinterpret what that means. We need to run for office. We need to stop hiding from responsibility.”

He said young people willing to fight for that better future should begin this year by registering and voting.

How much influence should college students have over local elections?
Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg tells young people in addition to demanding change from current lawmakers, they should vote and consider running for local office themselves. (Photo: Clayton Henkel)