Uneducated and unmotivated: Legislators attack integrity of student voters

Tuesday February 1, 2011 for Montana Kaimin

Student voting rights might be threatened by attitudes in the state legislature as characterized by House testimony Friday.

Debating the legitimacy of mail-in ballots, some legislators suggested college students might attempt to forge ballots in addition to being unmotivated and uneducated.

“I was definitely offended by some of the rhetoric in that debate,” said Rep. Michele Reinhart, D-Missoula.

Discussion of HB 130 diverged from the topic of mail-in ballots to student voters when Rep. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, suggested the removal of a clause that mandated voting outreach to students and other traditionally disenfranchised citizens.

“Concerned individuals don’t need to be coddled and babysat to make sure they get it right,” he said.

Ken Peterson, R-Billings, agreed and further suggested it would be reckless to encourage more university students to vote.

“I went to college myself and I know that sometimes you are not very motivated to do the right thing,” Peterson said. “You are thinking about totally other things, so I don’t think we should set up a special class to try to drag them to the polls.”

He clarified to the Kaimin Monday that he is fine with students voting if they have an interest in exercising that right, but he doesn’t think they need special treatment. Peterson said his experience in college was that many students didn’t care to vote.

“I probably should have done it, but I wasn’t motivated in any direction like that when I was a student,” Peterson said. “Sometimes when you are in school, your brain doesn’t work real well.”

Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, disagreed with Peterson’s characterization of most students and thought they deserved the extra outreach.

“My district is the home of The University of Montana and it’s surrounded by neighborhoods where students live. When you go door to door in my district, these students are constantly on the move,” Barrett said. “I think we do need to make the effort to get in touch with our students.”

“When I was a college student, which wasn’t that long ago, I know that I definitely changed my address about every six months,” said Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula. “And being as politically active as I was, I can’t say I changed my voter registration promptly every time.”

Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, described how UM students could scheme to forge ballots.

He said that since mail is delivered to dorms in bulk “where students, not postal workers, sort each piece,” Resident Assistants could easily forge the ballots instead of putting them into the mailboxes. Edmunds also noted how a student working in the Griz Card Center could work with a nefarious RA to fool state election officials that check for forged signatures.

“In order to receive a Griz Card, which is mandatory for every student at UM, you have to go and sign a piece of paper validating the information on the card,” Edmunds said. “Again, a student is in charge of this process. This means that every student signature can be accessible.”

The mail-in ballot bill was defeated in the house 42–57 because of concerns about potential voter fraud scenarios that included the impact of domineering spouses, family voting for dead relatives, students voting more than once in national elections, con artists directing people to mail their ballots to the wrong address, and security concerns for mail that is not delivered directly to an individual box — such as in dorms or nursing homes.

But the scenario Edmunds described simply is unreal, said Micheal Nugent,      assistant director of residence life. Griz Card Center is always staffed by at least one non-student and it would be difficult to review cards with student signatures without raising suspicion. A full-time non-student worker generally sorts mail to the dorms —which residence life guesses to be thousands of pieces a day.

“Not to say we don’t trust students,” Nugent said. They do help sort mail on occasion.

But more importantly, Nugent said, he can’t remember a single complaint about stolen mail; they keep additional logs for parcels that require signatures, RAs are thoroughly vetted in the hiring process, and residence life strictly monitors who is allowed behind dorm desks.

Edmunds admitted the scenario he detailed stuck out to some of his fellow representatives as being based on unjust stereotypes.

Reinhart, Diane Sands, D-Missoula, and others criticized him for his comments or at minimum told him it could be plainly offensive to students.

“If I came across like all students are criminals, it wasn’t my intent,” Edmunds said. “My intent was to give an example of how mail-in ballots could be abused.”

Edmunds said he is concerned for the integrity of Montana’s voting process, which is why he voted against HB 130 and proposed HB 180. Edmunds’ bill proposed to end the state’s same-day registration process, which allows people to register up until the minute polls close.

The bill originally proposed to return to the pre-2005 standard that required Montanans to register at least 30 days before the election. It was amended in committee after a largely critical Jan. 20 hearing so that the deadline would be the Friday before elections.

“I didn’t like that people were still voting and registering to vote at 10 o’clock on the day of the elections,” Edmunds said.

“[Students] are probably going to hate me for this, too,” he said, chuckling.

This bill could harm students’ ability to vote despite Edmunds’ honorable intentions, said Jen Gursky, student lobbyist for the Associated Students of The University of Montana.

The most obvious reason is that students are a highly mobile population, which requires them to amend their voter registration information disproportionately compared to older Montanans and homeowners.

Gursky noted the bill would also disproportionately limit the voting opportunities of low-income families.

“If you work for minimum wage 30 to 40 hours a week and raise three kids, I’m sorry, getting to the polls on time isn’t your priority,” Gursky said.

Edmunds argued his bill would not disenfranchise students or other voters.

“You just have to plan a little bit,” Edmunds said.

He argues it would protect against fraud in national elections. For instance, a student from Vermont could cast an absentee ballot in that state then register with their Montana address to vote a second time in the presidential election, Edmunds said.

“As a student, it’s disheartening that a representative representing a student population has such distrust in students,” Gursky said.

Gursky fights for student issues in Helena and is disheartened by the repeated suggestions that university students would undermine the American voting process.

“I think it’s an attack on patriotism,” Gursky said. “I think it was an attack on young people and young people’s values and I can’t help but think it’s because students tend to vote more progressive.”

She hopes, at least, these comments fuel more students to be more vocal on issues that affect them. She respects the efforts of legislators who reach out to students instead of pushing them away.

“I think it’s important we grab these people and spread patriotism,” Gursky said. “We need to be part of this process and our voices need to be heard,” she said.

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