Student Voters Supressed in Iowa

We've all seen the cry of "voter fraud" being used for political purposes in recent years, but this latest example would be amusing if it weren't so pernicious: David Yepsen, a leading political reporter for The Des Moines Register, has suggested that Senator Obama's encouragement of college students to vote in the Iowa caucuses amounts to "fraud." President Bill Clinton too has gotten in on the action. Recognizing that such voting could well help Obama who has energized students on college campuses, beat his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton has discouraged such voting, telling college students to use their consciences in deciding whether or not to participate in the caucuses. But the bottom line is that voting by Iowa college students is perfectly legal, and indeed such voting could help to compensate for the otherwise anti-democratic nature of Iowa's role in the presidential election process.

Let's start with the law. Iowa residents can participate in the presidential caucuses, and the Iowa Code specifically provides that a "student who resides at or near the school the student attends, but who is also able to claim a residence at another location under the provisions of this section, may choose either location as the student's residence for voter registration and voting purposes." The state Democratic Party agrees that "[a]ny student who attends an Iowa college or university may participate in the Iowa caucuses provided they are 18 by November 4, 2008, and are a registered Democrat in the precinct in which they wish to caucus." Indeed, before raising his charge of fraud, Yepsen conceded in his column that voting by college students is "quite legal."

So what is this really about? Apparently Yepsen is upset that out-of-staters -- particularly college students from Illinois, whom Yepsen says are used to voter fraud -- are going to "skew" the results of the races. This kind of charge is hardly new. Indeed, back in 1965, the Supreme Court considered Carrington v. Rash, a case in which Texas sought to exclude state residents on military bases from voting in elections. Texas argued it had "a legitimate interest in immunizing its elections from the concentrated balloting of military personnel, whose collective voice may overwhelm a small local civilian community" The high Court, while recognizing the state's right to limit voting to bona fide residents, unanimously rejected the argument: "Fencing out from the franchise a sector of the population because of the way they may vote is constitutionally impermissible."

So much for Yepsen's implicit argument that resident Iowa college students are not "real Iowans" who should not be permitted to skew the results of the election. Yepsen also seems to idealize the Iowa caucuses, but the caucuses are not the paragons of democracy they are cracked up to be. They are likely to have very low voter turnout and operate with some quirky rules, including no right to a secret ballot (in the Democratic caucuses), unequal weighting of votes, and lack of transparency in the process.

Finally, there's reason we as a nation should actually be happy that candidates like Obama encourage Iowa college students to vote in the caucuses. Iowa and New Hampshire have inordinate influence over the choice of the president. Neither Iowa nor New Hampshire are representative of the interests of the country as a whole. Allowing Iowa and New Hampshire to go first already has a great "skew" on the presidential process, creating (or ending) momentum of presidential candidates. College students, who come to Iowa from across the U.S. and are likely to be more diverse (in numerous ways) compared to other Iowa residents can serve as a partial antidote to this skew.

Yepsen concludes his piece by stating that "If Iowa can't get this right, then Iowa shouldn't get this sort of influence." Indeed.

This article first appeared on Rick Hasen’s Election law blog (


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