Durbin Introduces Bill Requiring Universities to Offer Voter Registration to Students

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a bill today to require all colleges and universities that receive federal funds to offer voter registration services to students. The bill, the Student Voter Opportunity to Encourage Registration Act of 2009, or Student VOTER Act, would designate federally funded colleges and universities as voter registration agencies, much like state departments of motor vehicles. The bill’s aim is to reverse a decades-long trend of young voters – those between ages 18 and 24 – not participating in the democratic process.


“Many students are first-time voters and are often unfamiliar with how to register to vote. Our bill would make registering to vote as simple as registering for class,” Durbin said. “Making voter registration more accessible will remove one burden preventing young people from getting involved in our democracy.”


According to data from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, voter registration hurdles are the biggest reason for low youth voter turnout in America.


Despite a small increase in youth voter turnout during the 2008 presidential election, only 48 percent of 18-24 year old citizens voted, compared to 66 percent of citizens 25 and older. This marked the ninth straight presidential contest in which less than half of these young Americans participated. In fact, the percentage of young Americans who vote today is lower than it was in 1972 - the first presidential election following the lowering of the voting age to 18.


In 1998, Congress required colleges and universities to make a “good faith effort” to register students to vote. However, according to a 2004 Harvard University study, only 17 percent of colleges and universities nationwide fully comply with the law.


Senator Durbin’s Student VOTER Act would:


• Require all universities that receive federal funds to offer voter registration to students at the same time they register for classes.


• Amend the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA or “motor voter act”), which was passed by Congress in 1993 and which requires state and local governments to offer voter registration to citizens when they obtain a driver’s license or public assistance benefits. The student voter bill would designate universities that receive federal funds as “voter registration agencies” for purposes of the NVRA.


The Durbin bill would not represent an administrative burden for universities because the requirement to offer voter registration with class registration would mean universities would not have to spend money on voter registration drives, as many now do to comply with the Higher Education Act’s “good faith effort” requirement.


In addition, the Durbin bill would depoliticize voter registration on campus by replacing the current system in which partisan organizations often take the lead on voter registration with a system in which registration would be in the hands of non-partisan and accountable institutions.


The Durbin bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on March 26, 2009 by Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Steven LaTourette (R-OH).


The Durbin-Schakowsky-LaTourette legislation has been endorsed by the secretaries of state of Ohio, Missouri, and Vermont, and by over 20 leading youth and public interest organizations, including the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE), Rock the Vote, the United States Students Association (USSA), the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Fair Vote, Voto Latino, and U.S. PIRG (the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups).