By Jason Chappell and Allison Thomasseau
October 26, 2012
Deborah Singer, a Boston University journalism major, said she was excited to register to vote when she turned 18. She submitted her registration card at the library near her home in Cleveland and assumed that it had all gone through.
She tried e-mailing and phoned the elections board five times, she said, but was repeatedly told there was no record of her registering.
Three years after she first registered, the ballot arrived last week.
“Ultimately, everything worked out, but there was a lot of confusion and unnecessary stress,” said Singer, now 21.
According to the 2010 Census, just 45 percent of 18- to 24-year-old New Englanders are registered to vote, compared to 64 percent of 25 to 44-year-olds and about three-fourths of people over 45 years old.
Young voters have notoriously low registration and turnout rates, and several out-of-state BU students said that with lives already in flux the hoops they have to jump through to register could easily discourage many from exercising their civic duty.
Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, said her main concerns with youth voter registration are that many young people lack civic knowledge. The antiquated registration system is not accessible online, resulting in confusion for inexperienced voters.
“It’s such a complicated system for a new, young voter, who’s an under-confident participant, and it could be enough to keep people away,” Smith said.
Anna Tam, a 20-year-old junior at Boston University said, “I sent in my voter registration form and requested an absentee ballot with it. They sent another voter registration form to my house in Brooklyn, even though I was in Boston.”
“I filled that form out and waited for my absentee ballot,” Tam added. “I called them for information and got a very unhelpful message.”
A call to the Brooklyn Board of Elections in New York City for information on absentee ballots prompt a prerecorded message: “Absentee ballots for the special election of Feb. 28 in the 59 Assembly district started going out on Feb. 6.”
The message directed callers to leave their information for further assistance, but as of Oct. 23, the mailbox was full.
For other students, the registration process went smoothly, but to receive an absentee ballot can be another arduous process. This is especially relevant for Boston students with many schools drawing out-of-state students.
Bethany Sharp, a Boston University senior from Harrison County, Texas, knew that she was registered to vote because she cast votes in previous elections.
“I wanted to request my absentee ballot while I was still in the state, so I sent in the application in mid-August before I left for school,” Sharp said, adding that, because she faxed the request form she knew that the Board of Elections received it.
When she called a month later, she learned that the board didn’t send absentee ballots until the end of September. When she never received the ballot, she called again.
“I insisted that they look up my specific request,” Sharp said. “They told me that my request had come in too early. Rather than get in touch with me via the contact information on my application, they shredded my application and didn’t notify me.”
Rich Parsons, director of communications for the Texas Secretary of State, said that while ballots are not accepted prior to 60 days before an election, the voter would be notified that their absentee ballot application was not valid and to resubmit it during the required time frame. This system did not function in Sharp’s case.
Sharp restarted the process, and after rush processing by the Board of Elections, received a ballot.
Some states, including California, Oregon, and Washington, allow voters to register for absentee ballots online, but others, such as Delaware, require paper notarized absentee ballot registration forms and do not allow address or ballot changes online.
Jennifer Rounds, a Delaware native and Boston University senior, registered to vote in her home state at the Department of Motor Vehicles, but did not start the absentee ballot registration process until she returned to Boston this fall. Delaware’s application requirements were problematic.
“The process is too extensive for people who want to vote,” Rounds said. “It’s expecting a lot of effort for people who are in college.”
Rounds said the process was confusing, as there were loopholes for absentee ballots for some people, such as public service members, and the rules were not defined clearly.
“I don’t know why it can’t be standard for everyone across all states,” Rounds said.
In addition to varying registration laws, many new laws were instituted this year, including voter I.D. laws, and many voters do not know what the laws are in their own state.
“It’s a moving target because legislatures keep on changing laws,” said Peter Levine, director for The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
Levine said this was especially a problem among young voters who do not know that registration deadlines are often 30 days before an election.
“Young people get tuned in late, because they are new to voting, and if they find out two weeks before the election, it’s too late,” Levine said.
It may be too late for young voters to register now, but even if they had registered before, the process did not live up to expectations.
As Tam, from New York, said, “I did eventually get my ballot in Boston, but the incompetence is ridiculous.”