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.