Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Massachusetts students struggle to register to vote

By Michelle Alcott

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As the fierce battle between Massachusetts incumbent Sen. Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren draws to a close on Election Day on Nov. 6, time to register to vote for the student population at the University of Massachusetts will expire in less than a month. The last day to register to vote in the state election is Wednesday, Oct. 17, and since the primaries, 1,500 individuals have been registered to vote at Amherst Clerk’s Office alone.

Sami Webber/Collegian

A number of students have yet to register, particularly freshmen class members who would be voting for the first time in a national or state election this fall. The University’s student population consists of students hailing from areas all across the country, and for those seeking to not take out absentee ballots from their hometowns and register in Massachusetts, organizations attempting to register these students grow concerned about students’ understanding of the process.

Members from Amherst’s Clerk’s Office, where students and others are sent to register to vote, say they’ve seen confusion among students when it comes to registration processes. They’ve also said that a number of individuals who attempted to register to vote have registered incorrectly.

According to Amherst Town Clerk Sandra Burgess, voter registration drives in the area have been inadvertently signing students to vote incorrectly.

“I couldn’t really identify any one thing,” Burgess said about how students are being registered improperly. “We just see a lot of confusion around this.”

Alice Swift, committee leader for the Amherst League of Women Voters, said that in her experience running the group’s registration drive, a common mistake she sees of student voter registration is that students fill out the form’s address section wrong.  Many students, particularly those who live in on-campus dormitories write their P.O. Box address or simply their dormitory’s name on the registration form.

According to Swift, students residing in dormitories need to put the complete address of their dorm, which includes the dorm’s name and their individual room number. Both Swift and Burgess said students should always include their phone numbers on the registration form, so that the individual may be contacted for any discrepancies on their forms.

Otherwise, voters may believe they are registered, show up to vote and have their vote eventually discounted.

It is no secret that students, who are often new to voting, face a unique challenge in discovering how to register to vote in a town where they have not always resided.

Organizations from the Registry of Motor Vehicles to other groups running voter registration drives have turned in bad voter registration forms, according to Burgess.

Pat Olanyk, an Amherst Clerk’s Office employee, said the office has received at least 50 bad registrations as of Sept. 20, and she said there may be as many as 100 “problematic” registrations. She estimates approximately 10 individuals will likely not be registered to vote by Election Day.

“Say we only end up with 10 that we can’t resolve, it may be a very small number, it may be a fraction of a percent,” Burgess said. “But if you’re that voter, and you get to go to the polling place and you don’t get to vote, it doesn’t really matter how many there were. You didn’t get to vote when you believed that you were going to get to vote.”

For the estimated 10 people, she said, they will fill out a provisional ballot, and this provisional ballot will be put aside for the Clerk’s Office to investigate and decide whether or not the individual is eligible to vote. In the days following the election, if an employee from the Clerk’s Office is unable to find evidence of an individual’s eligibility, the provisional ballot will be discarded.

Chair of the UMass chapter of MassPIRG Beth Ramey said it is hard to ensure that the volunteers who work in the voter registration drives are checking every registration form before students walk away from their booths. Many students are in a rush to get to class, grab a bite in the dining hall or zip back to their dorms, and Ramey has found they often leave the booth without confirming their registration has been properly filled out.

Of the 395 voters MassPIRG has registered, Ramey said, the group holds 46 invalid registrations and are currently working to contact those individuals in order to fix their forms before the registration deadline.

Ramey said MassPIRG officials have met with the Amherst Clerk’s Office to try to find ways of remedying the situation.

According to Burgess, Amherst Clerk’s Office employees have been instructed to keep individuals at the counter until it is verified that their registration form is filled out properly.

“If you’re running a voter registration drive, you should be taking on that same responsibility (of making sure people stay until the document is complete),” Burgess said. “You essentially are telling a person that by registering they are going to be able to vote in Amherst, but if the job hasn’t been done correctly, they may not be able to vote in Amherst.”

Students already registered in their hometown have a few options for voting. Students can change their residency listed on their voter registration to enable them to vote in Amherst. This process is exactly the same, essentially, as the process new voters must undergo to register.

Otherwise, students can instead request an absentee ballot at the Amherst Clerk’s Office. Voters can also print out the form online and then mail it in to the Amherst Clerk’s Office or their hometown’s clerk’s office.

Finally, Burgess recommends student voters call the Amherst Clerk’s Office to confirm their registration was received and discover what precinct they must vote in. Voters need to be proactive in the registration process, she said.

Alyssa Creamer contributed to this article.

Michelle Alcott can be reached at [email protected]

2 Comments

2 Responses to “Massachusetts students struggle to register to vote”

  1. Emily on September 26th, 2012 11:33 pm

    As someone who has registered a couple hundred voters (really!), I can tell you this: while the group collecting the registration should absolutely do their best to verify that the forms are filled out correctly before the registrant walks away, the burden is on the Amherst Town Clerk to follow up with those who have filled a form out incorrectly! That is the law, which the Town Clerk seems not to be very clear on.

    Having done a lot of voter reg at UMass, I can also say with confidence that the Town Clerk’s office was VERY difficult to work with in 2010. I had repeatedly asked them to come and do a training with our student volunteers, which they repeatedly refused. Instead, they gave me a single copy of a handout about voter registration, which had several pieces of incorrect information on it. That said, I am extremely disappointed in the student groups for not better training their volunteers on what to look out for on a voter registration form. It’s really not rocket science.

    [Reply]

  2. vanessaelizebeth on February 19th, 2013 4:25 am

    The students in that picture had a certain look on their faces, sort of sullen, angry, determined.

    [Reply]

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