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Oh, SmAlbany!

Daily posts and occasional longer essays about politics, culture, and life in the Capital Region...updated M-F, midmorning

"I write this not as a booster of Albany, which I am, nor an apologist for the city, which I sometimes am, but rather as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs..." -W. Kennedy, from O Albany!

Skidmore college voting

The Great voter-eligibility Debate: Up in Saratoga, it's once again time for the annual fight over whether and how the Skidmore students should be voting in the town elections. In a small town like Saratoga, 600 or 1000 votes from the college can turn the outcome of the election. At Ohio Statse - where there are 50,000 students, the college can be a major player in city politics. And that means that lots of people get really heated about whether or not they should be voting and also about little trivial detals, like whether they should have to walk to town in order to vote instead of a voting machine being placed on campus. All of this means it's again time for political science 101 here at Oh, SmAlbany! Itsn't it great what 6 years in graduate school will do for you?

As always, the first thing to throw out the window is the partisan rhetoric. It's important to remember that the rules of a democracy are often shaped by political preferences instead of philosophical values. This leads to lots of hypocrisy. It's why politicians so often flip-flop on fundamental issues and why partisan bloggers are so often caught making hypocritical statements. For almost any democratic rule worth debating, there are reasonable philosophical positions to support either outcome. People interested solely in the outcome simply pick the philosophical position that suits them as a justificaiton. So, of course, in Saratoga this means that the Republicans oppose Skidmore voting and the Democrats favor it, for the most part. In towns where the college is more conservative than the town (think Colorado Springs or South Bend), the opposite situation ensues.

Of course, beyond all the partisan rhetoric there is a serious philosophical debate about the voting rights of transient people. Let's first examine some reasons why it might be a bad idea for college students to be allowed to vote locally:

1) College students are barely residents of the town: At a school like Skidmore, the vast majority of college students go home to their families on every break from school. That means that they actually live in Saratoga about 26 weeks of the year, or half-time. So they are short-term, part-time residents at best. (Now, in some locales the laws have been drawn that you have to actually sign up for residency in your college town if you want to vote there. In other places (like New Haven, CT) you can vote ion the local elections regardless of your residency status. But that's simply a sub-question to the main question, and not particularly part of the philosophical issue.)

2) College students aren't part of the tax base: The vast majority of students live on campus, so they don't pay rent in town. Similarly, most of them get the vast majority of their meals on campus. In effect, they are only very slightly part of the local tax base, since Skidmore operates under the non-profit tax laws. They consume the services of the town without really paying for the services of the town.

3) College students don't have any long-term interest in the community: This is perhaps the fundamental objection to college town voting. While college students are a mainstay of any college town, the individual students aren't there very long. Thus they don't worry about the future of the town. For instance, college students would never support a public works project - like a library - that was going to take more than 5 years to complete (assuming they had to share the tax burden). They'd be gone. So if the trade off is higher taxes now for a library then, or some short-term project now vs. some better project long term, they are always going to side with the short-term. Democratic entities have enough trouble producing long-term benefiical results without the added complication of fundamentally short-term voters.

4) College students don't have any fundamental interests in the community: This is similar to the last item, but a different effect - college students don't have much interest in the long-term vitality of existing public life. This gives them all sorts of incentives to support policies that have short-term benefits but drastic long-term costs. For instance, college students would probably not support the improvement of the public school system (again assuming they had to share the tax burden), since they will be long gone before they have school-aged children. In effect, they are a permanent proportion of the town that really doesn't care about the town. And that's important, espeically in a town like Saratoga, where less than 100 votes can often determine the outcome of the elections, bonds, and school budget votes.

5) College students are rich and different - this is not a real objection, per se. But it's the way that the above objections are often articulated in college towns. Unlike Saratoga, most college towns feature populations of locals who are not wealthy. Saratoga is an exception in that the students at the college are probably not from families that are particularly more wealthy than the average citizen of the town. That's not true in most college towns. Furthermore, most college towns feature liberal campuses and conservative town populations, relatively speaking. Thus the complaint from the town is usually as follows: a bunch of rich kids who don't pay taxes and led a charmed upbringing are coming to the town and trying to pass liberal policies against the wishes of the simple folk on main street. In effect, college students are seen as the limosine liberals - rich kids in SUVs pretending to be working-class revolutionaries.

Ok. That's the basis of the philosophical objection. Now let's discuss some reasons why they should be voting:

1) Where else are they going to vote?: It's clear that college students should be allowed to vote somewhere. The ony real alternative to voting at the college is to have them all vote absentee back in their hometowns. But they don't really live there, either. In fact, the hometowns could argue just as easily as the college-towns that students shouldn't be voting there for all the reasons listed above! Sure, they have roots in those towns, but they are by and large not going to be heading back to the old towns. They don't pay taxes in the old towns. It's a weaker argument, but only by degree, not by kind.

2) Allowing them to vote in the college-towns increases their turnout: It has been shown they college students are far more likely to vote in the college-towns than they are in the hometowns. This is for a number of reasons: 1) being able to vote in person rather than by absentee ballot generates an easiness to the process that raises turnout. 2) Students tend to be more aware of local issues in the college-towns than they do in their hometowns, so they tend to be more interested in politics in the college-towsn. 3) Students in the college towns tend to have aggregate interest - i.e. the interests of college-students - while students who vote in the hometowns tend to not be affiliated with any particular local interests.

3) Voting in the college-towns builds better democratic citizens: The lowering of the voting age in 1971 had one nasty side-effect: People gained the right to vote just as they were generally being uprooted from the political community where they initially grew up - some were going off to college and others were moving as they found work in new communities. This placed people's intial entry into adult political life right at the moment they were least likely to have any knowledge or history in the community they currently resided. Several studies have shown that students who vote in college-towns are more likely than those voting in hometowns to continue to vote after they leave the college town and settle in a new area. The implication is clear: getting students to vote in the location they live can have an effect on their future voting habitis.

4) Voting in the college-towns improves the college-town relationship: Often, if the school is small compared to the town, allowing the students to vote has the effect of both softening the ability of the town to dump on the students with ridiculous rules while at the same time leaving the students unable to truly affect the other policy areas of the town that don't concern them. That's a happy outcome for both sides. This doesn't work well in places where the school overwhelms the town, but that's not most situations.

Personally, I'm very torn on this issue. There are bad results from either policy. If the college truly overwhelms the town, you have situations where the students, as voters, end up running the town to a certain degree. Sometimes students even run for mayor, hoping to bank on support from the other students. I don't think that's a good idea. On the other hand, when students don't vote in the small towns, the towns have a tendency to put in place policies that are sometimes quite anti-student. Throw in the beneficial effects of student voting and i'm probably in favor of college-town voting, but not by much.

At any rate, don't listen to the partisan on this one. They are simply worried about the effect of student voting on the political outcomes, not the philosophical question that underlies it.

P.S. I'm going to start collecting all of these PoliSci pieces into a new right-side tab, so they can easily browsed in the future. They seem to be some of my more popular posts, so I thought I'd make easy access available.
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At 2:55 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

Like you I am a native of Loudonville who lives in Boston while trying to get into a PhD program. I like your analysis on the issue of college kids voting but I think it is a bad idea. I will use the example of Somerville Masschusetts. Over the past few years recently graduated Harvard and Tufts students had been setting up the stage to gain power in this city adjacant to Boston. In some respects they have been succesful, although the college students do not vote (Although some in Cambridge want to allow it), many had made themselves permenent residents in order to vote. The aftermath of this has created a huge issue between townies vs new comers. Being a student of politics and policy like yourself I see so major issues with their success. The first issue has to do with the agenda the newcomers and students have been pushing. They advocate affordable houings but none of them own property or pay porperty taxes. How could these people understand the issue without actually having lived it. Another problem has to do with the agenda they are pushing. Granted it is good ot be open minded, but these new comers tend to put personal ideology over the needs of the city. As an Alderman your job is to represent your constituents concerns on city issues. What has happened is Alderman brining up Foreign Policy (like disinvesting in Isreal) and impeaching the President (Brookline). The third problem I see with this is the fact that young people may be idealistic, but they tend to be naive to the reality. They still think the real world is like college when in reality its not. While a student at UAlbany I saw many of the same things. The campus Greens wanted to get students to vote in the Pine Hills neighborhood. However, this area is a heavy African American population with alot of issues such as gangs and drugs. I feel that a college kid or recent graduate without experience in the neighborhood and city lack the capacity to create coalitions and pass effective policy. Instead they tend to push unreal goals, and end up making things worse for the people who already live there. Another problem I see with students and recent graduates is the way the use city government as a stepping stone for jobs. Their job isn't to better their career, they are supposed to make sure streets are fixed and make sure the budget works. Many of them can't even manage their own budget why would we want them managing a cities.I feel that people have a right to get their voices heard especially since many young people feel like they have no voice. On the other hand, students have not really lived life yet so what right to they have telling lifelong residents what to do.    

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