Our Voting Commissioners: Gee, We're Sorry but...

If you are 18 years old or older, the Voting Rights Act of 1970 and the 26th Amendment to the Constitution guarantee you the right to vote. To vote, you must first register, a simple enough procedure that usually entails producing a signed statement that you have met a city's or town's residency requirements or some evidence of the same--such as a cancelled rent check, or a listing in the phone book.

Simple enough, that is, unless you happen to be a student and attempted to register in the city of Cambridge this summer. For those who had the misfortune of claiming membership in this category (or resembling in any way someone who might) attempts to register to vote in the forthcoming elections were met by resistance strong enough to overcome all pleas and objections raised. Nothing short of a court order could get you onto Cambridge's voting rolls.

The decision whether or not to permit students to register in the area in which they attend school has been left for the most part up to the discretion of the local election officials in Massachusetts. In Boston and the surrounding areas, the ease with which students registered varied this summer, depending upon the city in which they attempted.

A certain degree of consistency was reached after June 21, when Massachusetts Attorney General Robert Quinn issued a ruling stipulating that anyone between the ages of 18 and 21 must be allowed to vote in the city or town in which he can claim residence or intent of residence six months prior to the election. (The residency requirement in Massachusetts was lowered from one year to six months last November.) Although his announcement was only an opinion, and therefore not legally binding, many Massachusetts cities which had previously barred students from registering, including Boston and Brookline, reversed their stands and began registering students. The Cambridge Election Commission, however, ignored the ruling, replying to an onslaught of objections by saying it was waiting for an opinion on the ruling's legality from City Solicitor Philip M. Cronin '53. Cronin was conveniently on vacation for the rest of the summer.

The Cambridge Election Commission is composed of four commissioners. Two, Andrew T. Trodden and Francis Burns, are appointed by the Democratic ward chiefs, and two others, Constance Milton and Edward J. Samp Jr., by the Republican equivalent. It is somewhat difficult to understand how a commission with no direct authority from City Hall itself is entitled to determine who is to be enfranchised and who is not, but that has been precisely the case.


Despite the fact that Cambridge was holding its ground on registering students, students as well as others in the suspect age group continued to appear at Election Commission Headquarters at 362 Green Street. Their continuing efforts to register were due in large part to the unstinted efforts of the voter registration groups in the area, particularly the Cambridge Committee for Voter Registration (CCVR) and Universities National Anti-War Fund (UNAF). The two groups spent long hours conducting door-to-door and phone campaigns, as well as demanding that election officials provide more hours and more personnel to register potential voters. They plan to culminate their efforts in early October with a rally and mass registration drive continuing up to the October 13 deadline.

In 1969 the only evidence a person had to bring as testimony to the fact that he had fulfilled the residency requirement was a signed statement swearing to that effect. This summer, actual proof of residency was required of students in proceedings described by one veteran of the experience as "inquisition-like." Whether or not the evidence was accepted as sufficient proof, however, fluctuated widely, depending on who presented it and to whom it was presented and the day on which it was presented.

While one election commissioner would accept a listing in the phone directory, another would ask for supplementary evidence; cancelled rent checks and statements from landlords would be accepted one day, and not the next. For some, the issue of parental support could be used as a reason for disqualification, for others the subject was not even broached. One woman, who was registered with no opposition, saw her name crossed off the list when she casually mentioned afterwards that she was going to be married at the end of the summer. The commissioner who had registered her told her she would have to come back and re-register once she had changed her name. The woman told them that she was going through the legal process of retaining her maiden name, but other than a snide query about why she was bothering to get married in the first place then, there was no other response to her explanation. Her name remained off the lists.

In the meantime, Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union lawyer Harvey M. Burg had filed a class action suit in Federal District Court on the behalf of four students who had been denied the right to register. Charging violations of the First, Fifth, Fourteenth and Twenty-Sixth Amendments, the suit sought to enjoin the Cambridge Election Commission from "subjecting students and other young persons to burdens of identification and proof and proceedings more onerous than those to which adults and other persons have been subjected" when attempting to register to vote.

Although Federal District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity granted no immediate relief in the suit, which had asked the court to issue a restraining order directing the commissioners to provisionally register persons between the ages of 18 and 21 and to accept ballots from such persons on a separate roll pending court action, he did set a September 9 hearing date for the suit. Burg asked in addition that the court request from the Election Commission specific reasons, in writing, why his clients had been prohibited from registering.

One of the plaintiffs in the suit was David O. Mendelsohn, 21, a Harvard extension student who attended the Summer School. Although Mendelsohn exhibited more persistence and determination than most people would in his attempt to register, his case is by no means atypical.

Mendelsohn made two attempts to register--the first in mid-May, the second in July--and on both occasions he was turned down. Cancelled rent checks and a signed letter from his landlord were both rejected as insufficient proof of residency, and Mendelsohn finally requested a hearing by the Election Commission on his case.

Although the hearing was well-attended by concerned citizens and news media alike, the Commission made no effort to lay out any official reason as to why they were preventing students (Mendelsohn in particular) from registering, and presented no uniform guidelines as to what constituted official proof of residency. The commissioners demonstrated the same arbitrariness and ambiguity that had marked the issue from the beginning. They told Mendelsohn that the fact that he had not attempted to register until May 19 was evidence that he had not shown intent to stay in the city six months prior to the election (which would have been May 2), even though Mendelsohn has lived in Cambridge over a year. The commissioners asked him what he had done to "divorce" himself from his father's home, and inquired as to how much of his clothing and sporting equipment still remained at the home of his parents. Since Mendelsohn planned to run for a seat on the Cambridge School Committee, he requested a decision in his case before the August 20 deadline for filing for candidacy. The Commissioners told him to wait until after the election, or to get an attorney.

In explaining the city's recalcitrance with regard to registering students, Cambridge officials usually cite the fact that most students are not financially self-supporting and therefore do not make a significant contribution to the city's tax assessors. Students only remain in the city for a certain amount of time, ultimately reaping the benefits of their education elsewhere, they contend. Students's interest in the machinations of the city's political life, therefore, cannot possibly stem from concern over the effect the city's government will have on them directly, since they are only in the city for the limited purpose of their education.

Both arguments, however, fail to meet any burden of proof. Students do end up making significant financial contribution to the city through the high rents they must pay if they live off-campus and through sales taxes and other municipal charges and levies. Furthermore, Cambridge's large student population has been an influential economic bait, drawing a number of retail merchants and other business to the area.

The question of a student's purpose in being in the city for only a limited duration is also open to debate. Increased mobility has become a strong aspect of American society; it is no longer unusual for a family to change its place of residence as frequently as every three or four years. It is difficult, then, to understand the logic which sees no difficulty in registering an insurance salesman who may be living in an entirely different state two years hence, but will not enfranchise a student in any place other than the one in which he pays a visit once a year. Students, as much as any other group, are affected by the laws and ordinances that the city passes, and just as implicated in the decisions of its officials--the police, fire and sanitation departments--as any other denizen of the city.

The stated reasons behind the city's obstinance, however, which can be met by concrete objections and arguments and legal subtleties, are obviously not the only forces at work in its attitudes toward student voter registration. It is the other reasons, cloistered from the public eye, and made up for the most part by unstated assumptions and foreholdings, that go further in explaining the official stand. It seems to many veteran city hall observers that these unofficial responses to the problem are based more on the survival instinct than on any logical or philosophical objections.

There are approximately 31,000 potential voters between the ages of 19 and 35 in Cambridge. Despite a population decrease of 7000 since 1960, there has been a 45 per cent residency increase within the 20-25 age bracket. The new voters, if they register, could constitute an estimated one-third of Cambridge's electorate--at a time when the entire nine member City Council and six member School Committee are up for grabs.

Although some observers active in the voter registration drive see the conflict as being merely generational, another round of town and government animosities, others will tell you, quoting the above figures, that it looks to them more like a numbers game. A politician who knows his or her political power base well, and has gleaned his success from the existing electorate is not going to be particularly anxious to have it undergo a drastic expansion, an expansion whose political direction can be a highly volatile and uncontainable quantity, whose interests, as one politico put it, "don't exactly coincide with those of the existing parastructure."

A concerned and knowledgeable student electorate could wreak havoc with the Cambridge political scene if it so wished. The issues are certainly there--an extravagantly mismanaged rent control law, a disintegrating school system, highly flammable relationships between the police and the black community, and an3