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A Guide to Voting as a College Student

With so much else to juggle while in college, you may not have thought much about how to vote. Even if it’s your first election or going to school means you live in a different state, figuring out how to vote in college can be relatively simple.

You can be a resident of two states, but you can only vote in one. So if you’re a college student who has a permanent address in one state and lives in another to attend school, you can choose where you want to cast your ballot. You’ll need to check with your home state or the state where your school is located for more details on registration requirements, how to register, and, of course, how to vote.

You can generally find this information through a state’s secretary of state website or the board of elections. Additionally, if you decide to vote in your home state but are living in another, you’ll probably need to cast an absentee ballot. Allow yourself enough time to receive—and return—your ballot through the mail. The same goes for changing registration: While a few states offer same-day voter registration, many have firm deadlines for registering new voters before an election.

If, say, you live in Hawaii but are in college in New York, chances are you aren’t going to be able to head home to vote in your hometown elections. Assuming you want to remain a registered voter in Hawaii, you’ll need to register as an absentee voter and have your ballot sent to you at school.

How to Vote in the State Where Your School Is Located 

As long as you’ve registered to vote in your “new” state, you should get voter materials in the mail that will explain the issues, have candidate statements, and say where your local polling place is located. You might even be able to vote on your campus. If not, there’s a pretty good chance that many students at your school will need to get to the neighborhood polling place on Election Day.

Check with your student activities or student life office to see if it is running shuttles or if there are any carpooling initiatives involved for reaching the polling place. If you don’t have transportation to your local polling place or won’t be able to vote on Election Day for some other reason, check if you can vote by mail. 

Voter registration drive on the University of Pennsylvania campus September 29, 2004.
A voter registration drive on the University of Pennsylvania campus Sept. 29, 2004. William Thomas Cain / Getty Images

Even if your permanent address and your school are in the same state, double-check your registration. If you can’t get home on Election Day, you either need to vote absentee or consider changing your registration to your school address so you can vote locally.

Where to Obtain Information on College Student Issues 

College students are a critical—and large—voting constituency who are often at the forefront of political activism, and a high percentage vote. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University estimated that 31% of those aged 18 to 29 voted in the 2018 midterm elections, the highest rate in 25 years.1 (It’s not an accident presidential debates are historically held on college campuses.)

Most campuses have programs and events staged by campus or local political parties and campaigns that explain candidates’ views on certain issues. The internet is full of information on elections, but seek out credible sources. Look to nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations for details on election issues, as well as quality news sources and political parties’ websites, which have information on initiatives, candidates, and their policies.

Coronavirus Pandemic and College Voters 

Like most aspects of life in America, voting while attending college has been complicated by the coronavirus health pandemic declared on March 11, 2020, and President Donald Trump’s national emergency proclamation issued on March 13, 2020. More than 1,100 colleges closed their campuses and converted to online classes at that time, and more than 14 million students left their college housing and headed home, often to different states where voting rules may vary.2

Hoping to address the problem of college student voting during the pandemic, at least 16 states delayed their primary elections or extended their deadlines for requesting an absentee ballot for the 2020 election.3 However, each state has its own rules and deadlines for requesting an absentee ballot. Thirty-four states and Washington, D.C., allow “no excuse” absentee voting, meaning voters need not list a reason for requesting an absentee ballot.4 The rest of the states provide a list of reasons voters can qualify to receive an absentee ballot. 

Max Kennedy during the Rock the Vote's Road Trip at the Community College of Philadelphia on September 18, 2008.
Max Kennedy during the Rock the Vote’s Road Trip at the Community College of Philadelphia on Sept. 18, 2008. Gilbert Carrasquillo /FilmMagic / Getty Images

While voting rights groups and some members of Congress have been pushing for expanding vote-by-mail nationwide to help people isolated in their homes by the pandemic vote, some experts worry that many pandemic-displaced college students may still find voting difficult if not impossible.5 As more states alter their primary dates and state vote-by-mail rules, the youth-vote advocate group Rock the Vote has included the latest information on election changes in each state during the coronavirus pandemic on its website.

Written by Kelci Lynn Lucier

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