Registration and the Vote: More Than a Symbolic Act

Reprint from The Oberlin Review, Sept. 10, 1971

Editors’ Note: This article is a reprint commemorating decades of Oberlin students’ participation in the democratic process. The Editorial Board encourages eligible students to exercise this right. While the Review has checked this piece for accuracy, given the amount of time since its original publication, some facts could not be confirmed and have been published in their original form.


Early this year, Congress passed an amendment to the Constitution giving the one-and-a-half million Americans who are between the ages of 18 and 21 the right to vote. Had a well-placed majority of the group been enfranchised in 1968 and voted Democratic, Richard Nixon would have been defeated. However, the question of whether or not the alternative Canada was preferable is not the subject of this discussion. The subject is the power of the student vote. 

Prohibition Efforts 

Almost immediately following the passage of the 26th amendment, many of the states took action to prohibit campus town voting. Through the use of both legislation and litigation, the precedent was established for requiring students to vote at their home residence or to vote through absentee ballots. The purpose of preventing students from voting on their campuses is quite clear; residents of campus towns often number fewer than the students. In many towns, if a majority of the students voted, they would elect members of their own community to the school board, the city council, and (where they exist) the mayorship. 

The first campus to accomplish such a coup was, not unexpectedly, the University of California at Berkeley. A movement guided by the Association of Students (whose president was Oberlin graduate Eric Wollman) succeeded in electing three candidates to the city council and a mayor on a radical slate. 

The City Council

The Oberlin City Council is composed of seven members. Of the seven, two are elected at large and the other five are selected by their wards. Since the majority of the campus is located in a single ward, students should theoretically be able to elect three members to the council. In actuality, they cannot even vote in Oberlin, never mind run for office. The law of the state of Ohio read as follows:

“One may register if the residence requirements will be met by the date of the next election. A student at an institution of learning in the state does not get a residence in the state and as such a person shall establish or acquire a home for permanent residence.” 

Is the system impervious?

Although the law has a certain ring of finality to it, it would be a mistake to think that the system is impervious to change. Following a series of legislative battles and court cases, 16 states have moved to allow students to vote on their campuses. In one particular situation, eight individuals from the University of Michigan were rejected by the registrars in Ann Arbor. The key phrase when the case was brought to court was a section of the state election code which states that no electorate should be considered to have “gained or lost a residence” by virtue of entering the armed forces or going to college. The court ruled that such a clause, when used to deny the students the option of registering in their college town, violated both the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment and the Michigan constitution. 

Registration Details 

Registration to vote in Oberlin is being held in the community center on South Main Street on Sept. 11, 15, 18, 20, 21, and 22. A town clerk, when questioned over the telephone, stated that she has been directed not to ask for proof of residence. However, her awareness of the law regarding students and her uneasiness regarding her ability to enforce it would seem to indicate that the situation may change. Any students who are moved to follow the Michigan example will probably find that they will not have any serious trouble in being barred from registering. Unless, of course, the board of elections has decided that by not making an issue of the residency rules, they will prevent a court case. Although a few students may squeak by, the number is not likely to be anywhere near as high as if the law changed with all the attendant hue and cry. 

In Sum

So as the solution now stands, students could (and should) move to change the laws, but the likelihood is that we will have the ability to vote by absentee ballot in any elections this year, including presidential primaries and, at least in the Democratic primaries, voting will be more than a symbolic act this time. 

Unfortunately, many states have a registration deadline in September, and registration by mail is prohibited. However, for those who 1) are not registered, 2) have a later deadline, or 3) will be going home before that deadline, a trip to the town hall would be a good idea. 

Cambodia invasions, John Mitchell, economic game plans, and four more years of Richard Nixon are not necessarily inevitable.