Students Question Right to Vote in Oberlin

Elizabeth Kuhr, Contributing Writer

The public gathered at district voting booths on Nov. 5 to elect a series of local and state candidates and vote on pertinent bill proposals, including the now-passed Community Bill of Rights that prohibits hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and oil within Oberlin’s city limits. Because College students maintain Oberlin addresses, they can legally participate in these elections. The College has demonstrated a commitment to student participation in electoral politics with opportunities like Cole Scholars, a year-long program which informs students about campaigns, both in the classroom and in the summer on the road with candidates. And the student body has joined the effort — the non-partisan student-run Oberlin Young Voters Coalition hosts voter registration booths during the election season. Walking into an Oberlin voting booth as a college student is a weighty decision, considering the college’s property tax-exemption status as a higher educational institution and the predominately out-of-state student body, approximately 85 percent. “Obviously, it is easy to support the idea of an inclusive franchise and the notion that all interested individuals should have a voice,” said Politics Professor and Director of Cole Scholars Michael Parkin in an email to the Review. “Some, however, are concerned that students, because their time in Oberlin is limited, may have preferences that deviate from those who have a longer record of living, working and paying taxes in the area.” Taking a stance on the matter, representatives from both the Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians and the Oberlin College Democrats approve of students voting. “Students are residents, so they have the same right,” said OCRL co-chair College senior Taylor Reiners, who added he personally chooses not to vote on property taxes. Due to their 501(C)(3) status and politically right-leaning platform, OCRL strategically does not organize around voter registration in the historically Democratic town. However, the OC Dems fervently encourages student voting. Describing the group as an on-campus gateway into electoral politics, co-chair and double degree 5th year Eric Fischer says members are active in political canvassing and phone banking. Many members oversee OYV registration booths, which, according to Fischer, gave 1,800 students voting rights in fall 2012. “Registering as many people as possible is the goal,” said Fischer, who says he spends most of the year in Oberlin and pays employment taxes. “It’s important to me that people who come to [Oberlin College] make it a home both politically and socially.” By the same token, Fischer sympathizes with the argument against student participation in local elections; he cited an incident when Ohio State Senator Gayle Manning confrontationally expressed her reservations about their political engagement as college students. Like Manning, many who do not support students voting cite the issue with students deciding local property taxes. “We need to take into account our positions as college students who are not affected,” said Cole Scholar and College junior Jocie Sobieraj, who still votes on state-wide social issues she sees as impacting her. “Its classist to assume responsibility of local taxes on people.” Although it is true that some landlords renting Oberlin township property to residents live outside the district, and that a handful of college students remain in-state for years after graduation, the prevailing piece of advice, is to self-educate. Seeing student ability to vote on property tax as a trade-off to allowing them a say on a wide array of candidates and proposals, the League of Women Voters offers educational events and a seasonally updated election guide. “If students do vote, they have to make sure they’re educated,” said City Council Elect and member of LWV Sharon Pearson. Specifically, Pearson advises students to ask questions, pick an area they can affect and consider their votes’ long-term impacts, both in benefit and consequence.