Despite 26th Amendment, Students Face Ballot-Box Barriers

The passage of the 26th Amendment to the Constitution in 1971 gave 18-year-olds the right to vote everywhere in America except, for a while, in Cambridge.

Efforts of students at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to register was met with resistance from the Cambridge Election Commission, resulting in battles that led to the easier registration process that students enjoy today.

A non-binding ruling by Massachusetts Attorney General Robert Quinn on June 21, 1971 set a standard that all Massachusetts cities and towns--except Cambridge--chose to follow. According to his guidelines, students would be allowed to vote wherever they could claim residence, or intent of residence, six months prior to the election.

Cambridge students who attempted to register met with varying demands for proof of residency and self-sufficiency by Election Commission officials.

David O. Mendelsohn, 21, a Harvard extension student who attended the Summer School, was not allowed to register, despite having presented canceled rent checks and a signed letter from his landlord. Mendelsohn twice attempted to register, and was refused both times. He then requested a public hearing with the commission.

At the hearing, commissioners told him that he had disqualified himself by waiting until May 17--which was slightly less than six months before the election--to register.

The commissioners asked Mendelsohn a variety of questions to determine his autonomy from his parents. They demanded to know what he had done to "divorce" himself from his father's home and asked how much of his clothing and sporting goods still remained at his parent's home.

Other students encountered similar resistance. Officials frequently justified their decisions by saying that the students were not economically self-sufficient, and therefore did not make a significant contribution to the city's tax assessors.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit on behalf of Mendelsohn and three other students.

Magistrate Willy J. Davis refused to force the city to register the students, but did rule on Sept. 21 that supporting oneself is not a prerequisite for registering.

Instead, he said students only needed to show proof that they lived in Cambridge for six months prior to the election and that they intended to remain a little longer.

Davis cited specific examples of such proof, but said, "The decision is pretty much up to the individual registrar."

Problems continued, as even non-students encountered obstacles to registering.

Wanda Queen, 24, testified at a City Council meeting Oct. 4 that she was only allowed to register after several attempts: registrars rejected rent receipts, a birth certificate an officially validated birth certificate and an identification card. They finally accepted a series of telephone bills.

At the meeting Oct. 4, City Councillor Barbara Ackerman introduced a resolution requesting registration monitors from the state attorney general's office to watch the process.

"In a way it's like the southern states," she said. "[The election commissioners] make it so hard, it's not really worth it to register."

Despite the presence of television cameras, Rep. Robert Drinan (D-Mass.) and John Kerry of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Election Commission clerks refused to register about 30 students at the "register-in" held Oct. 8. The clerks referred the students to the Board of Election Commissioners, saying that people who are not self-supporting must have an appeal hearing.

Twenty-four of the Harvard students again brought suit before Davis. On Oct. 30--three days before the election--Davis ruled that, in 21 of the cases, the Election Commission had not produced enough evidence to deny the students registration.

Davis ordered that the students be allowed to vote, but that their ballots be specially marked, pending appeal by the city.

In the case of the three other students, Davis found doubt that they intended to make Cambridge their legal residence.

The city chose to appeal 19 of the cases. However, as the election came and went, the issue seemed forgotten until the students received letters in June informing them that the city was striking their names from the rolls.

The students again brought suit, resulting in a court decision that summer which declared that rules mandating a specific time of residence in a city are illegal.

"A student may register to vote the day he moves into Pennypacker 43, if he can show that he is living there now," said John Brode, an activist with the Cambridge Committee for Voter Registration (CCVR). CCVR distributed 60,000 flyers that summer, informing young people of their voters' rights.

A Massachusetts law passed in the spring of 1972 requires a city to open registration places at a college if at least 10 students make such a request.