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A Question of Place: Where Should Out-of-State Students Register?

For students, the right to vote in college towns has not always been guaranteed. In the 1970s, residency standards prevented some out-of-state students from registering to vote in their college cities, sparking debate about the role of students as temporary residents in a place. This culminated with the Supreme Court case Symm v. United States, which upheld the right of students to vote in the state where they attend college.

In New Haven, this debate was localized when the city registrar was sued for refusing to allow out-of-state Yale students to vote. In a phone interview with The Politic, former New Haven Mayor John DeStefano reflected on this event.

“If you look at the political leadership that resisted it, they felt a certain otherness about Yale students: they were here, but they were not really one of us,” DeStefano said.

***

Now that Yale students are legally allowed to vote in New Haven, they must make a personal decision about where to register—either in their home state or in Connecticut. Yet, such a choice carries consequences. Students must reflect upon factors such as their knowledge of local politics and the potential impact of their vote.

According to a report by the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, in the 2016 election, 25.2% of Yale students voted through absentee ballots, 45.9% voted in-person on election day, and the remaining 28.9% voted through other or unknown methods. In other words, during the 2016 election cycle, nearly half of Yale students chose to register and vote in Connecticut.

One of those people is Cameron Koffman ‘19, president of the Buckley Program. While Koffman is from New York, he registered to vote in Connecticut. In an interview with The Politic, Koffman cited his need to read about New Haven specifics, like the labor unions and seat of government structure, before feeling ready to making judgements in elections.

“New Haven is affected by very particular local issues that take time to learn about,” Koffman said. “I do try to read the New Haven Independent and New Haven Register to get a little sense of what’s going on. I think it’s disingenuous of a Yale student who doesn’t at least try to get a sense. If they’re just voting ‘Oh, he’s a Democrat’ or ‘Hey, he’s a Republican. That’s my vote,’ they should at least do some investigating.”

This acknowledgement of the complexity of Connecticut politics is shared by Jordan Cozby ‘20. As president of the Yale College Democrats and one of the founders of Yale Votes, a coalition of groups registering student voters, Cozby has many different roles, or “hats” as he calls them, in the political community at Yale. Cozby is registered to vote in his home state of Alabama. Yet, despite his heavy degree of political involvement, Cozby explains that if he registered in Connecticut, he would need to learn more about New Haven politics before voting.

“Connecticut politics are wild,” Cozby said in an interview with The Politic. “As involved as I am, I would really have to do a lot of research for the municipal election in 2019 to feel comfortable voting for mayor and other things here.”

According to Sophie Cappello ‘20, who grew up in New Haven, being uninformed should not be viewed as a barrier for students to vote. Rather, registering to vote in New Haven can be an opportunity to become knowledgeable about local politics.

“If Yale students are going to vote, they’re hopefully going to do some research. They’re going to want to know who to vote for, and that in itself will get them to know the city better,” Cappello said in a phone interview with The Politic. “It will create a better relationship between Yale and New Haven if we have a student body who is well read on the politics of the city and what their vote does for New Haven residents and Yale students.”

Yet, the choice of where to vote is not just a question of what students know, but of who they are. In other words, Yale students may not be representative of Connecticut constituents.

As a whole, Yale students are wealthier on average than New Haven residents. According to a 2017 article in The New York Times, “the median family income of a student from Yale is $192,600, and 69% come from the top 20 percent.” By contrast, the median household income in New Haven is $38,126 according to public U.S. government data. Yale students also represent different ages, education levels, and upbringings, all of which influence people’s voting habits. Therefore, given these differences, is it right for Yale students to impact elections in New Haven?

According to Cozby, while Yale students may not be characteristically similar to New Haven residents, they may be similar ideologically.

“Overwhelmingly when it comes to general election ballot box, I think Yale students and New Haven residents have interests aligned such that it is very important that they go vote,” Cozby said. “I don’t necessarily think Yale students are motivated to take over New Haven politics from New Haveners.”

Furthermore, Cozby believes that students can advocate for the interests of residents by voting for candidates that will support New Haven, particularly in statewide elections.

“I think there is a really genuine argument that if you are concerned with what is best for residents of New Haven and helping the people in Connecticut most at the margins, you should be voting here for the candidate that is going to benefit them,” Cozby said. “Apathy or not participating could do more damage.”

To Cappello, Yale students are part of the New Haven, so they should become involved in city politics through voting.

“Having grown up in New Haven, I think there is so much potential for Yale students to be engaged in the city politics. They comprise a somewhat substantial percentage of the population in the city itself, so I think having their voice represented will also mean that they’re listening and paying attention to what’s going on in the city,” Cappello said. “I find it concerning to encourage a world where Yale students should have no engagement through demonstrating their civic duty and voting here.”

Furthermore, Capello explains, students’ brief residency in Connecticut should not discourage them from becoming active in local politics.

“I find it to be more disconcerting as a New Haven resident to think that students are coming here and seeing New Haven as just a short term place where they go to school, but not a place where they have to care about their surroundings,” Cappello said. “By registering to vote, that demonstrates an investment in the city that goes beyond viewing this place as just a campus. New Haven is so much more than Yale.”

It is this reasoning that led Victoria Mak ‘19, vice president of Yale Votes, to register to vote in Connecticut rather than in her home state of New Jersey.

“The decision for me was really just about the community I felt really aligned with, as it should be for everyone. I felt that the Yale political community was pretty active, and in that way I wanted to be in tune with New Haven politics as well as Connecticut politics,” Mak said in an interview with The Politic.

Destefano encourages an approach like Mak’s. To him, the answer is simple: “Go where your passion is.”

“[What] I would advise people to do is to participate where they’re interested… and where they feel passion and where they feel the issues are urgent. In other words, where they feel engaged.”

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A cluster of tables sits on the grassy lawn of Yale’s Cross Campus. Students mill about, snacking on Popeyes fried chicken and glazed rings from Donut crazy. Others pose for pictures, arms around each other’s shoulders, as speakers play upbeat music. It is the kick-off to the Harvard Yale Votes Challenge, a competition between Yale and Harvard to get the most student pledges to vote. This event provided an opportunity for students to register to vote, request absentee ballots, or take “pledge photos” sharing their reasons for voting.

The Harvard Yale Votes Challenge was part of the massive push to register Yalies to vote. A leader in this effort is Yale Votes. Seeing the disjunction of campus voter registration efforts, this nonpartisan group partnered with organizations—from sports teams to cultural centers—to consolidate voter registration and encourage students to vote on election day.

On September 25, National Voter Registration Day, Yale Votes volunteers set up registration tables in 20 different locations around campus. Students had the choice to register to vote in either their home state or Connecticut. According to Harold Ekeh ‘19, president of Yale Votes, 400 students registered to vote in the span of eight hours.

And yet, not all view this as unequivocally positive. Koffman acknowledges that voter registration is difficult for students in certain states, and he supports Yale Votes’ efforts to make voting accessible to these individuals. However, he questions the emphasis on registering all students to vote.

“I think participation is very important in democracy, so I’m all in support of getting more people to vote. I do think, though, Yale students are generally pretty competent people. If you’re a Yale student and you haven’t registered to vote, I’m not that impressed. I don’t think Yale should be nudging you into voting,” Koffman said. “If you are a Yale student who has not registered to vote, you probably don’t care about what’s going on, and you’re being socially pressured, persuaded, into voting. You shouldn’t be voting.”

Koffman’s concern is rooted in his earlier opinion about the need for student voters to be informed about New Haven.

“I think it’s a privilege to vote. It’s a responsibility to at least know what’s going on in the election and to not vote blindly,” Koffman said.

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On Tuesday, November 6, some Yalies will head to their local polling places. Others will have cast absentee ballots weeks prior. Some will not vote at all. Regardless of where students choose to—or not to—carry out their civic duty, they will have made a decisive choice before they’ve even selected a candidate.

The decision of where to vote transcends logistics and raises questions about identity, community, and investment in places and people. For DeStefano, casting a vote is a way for students to communicate that they care: “It’s how you accomplish getting a society you want to live in. You gotta own it.”