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Absentee Voters Hit Roadblocks

By Faryl Ury, Crimson Staff Writer

It took Matthew P. Downer ’07 four e-mails and a phone call to find out that he won’t be allowed to cast his vote for George Bush next Tuesday because first-time voters in his state must register to vote in person.

He didn’t, and now he faces a difficult choice.

“I can either fly back to Hamilton County, Tenn., or I can’t vote,” said a downcast Downer. “People wonder why young people don’t vote. Maybe they just can’t figure out the system or are dissuaded by the complications of the registration system.”

Diana C. Rosenthal ’05 got her Florida absentee ballot the other day, but only after 10 frustrating calls to the elections commission. “I either received busy signals, prerecorded messages giving me the office hours—even though it was in fact between 9 and 5 on a workday when I called—or was left with an incompetent person on the other end of the line who seemed not to understand my questions,” she said.

Rosenthal channeled her frustration into a facebook.com group, Florida Students with Problems Voting Absentee. The group, which now boasts more than 70 members, was created at the request of a Miami lawyer who plans litigation if Florida voters are disenfranchised.

These two would-be voters are not alone. In a state so clearly locked up in the Kerry column, Harvard and nearby universities provide a small pocket of students whose votes matter critically. This year, Harvard students from red, blue and especially swing states are taking extra precautions to make their votes count.

Rebecca L. Zeidel ’06 was so concerned with her ballot’s prompt arrival that she tracked it all the way from Cambridge to Pittsburgh. It arrived Wednesday, Oct. 20, at 11:16 a.m.

Carrie E. Andersen ’08 lavishly stuck five 37-cent stamps on her ballot to Illinois. Allison K. Rone ’06 had her ballot Fed-exed to her from Washington state to make sure she filled it out in time.

Sara F. Eckhouse ’06 sent her ballot back to Iowa at the beginning of October.

While any eligible student can choose to vote in Massachusettes, students from battleground states are, predictably, voting absentee. And campus political groups have tailored their efforts accordingly.

Harvard Students for Kerry sifted through enrollment rosters to identify college students from battlegrounds, said Hayley Tozeski, director of youth outreach for the Kerry campaign.

Massachusetts Students for Bush also placed an emphasis on voters in showdown states, said Stephanie N. Kendall ’05, the group’s spokeswoman.

“We are encouraging students to register and vote absentee in their home states where their vote might make a critical difference in a swing state,” Kendall said. Two weeks ago, sophomores Rebecca C. Chase and Sasha Harris-Lovett put the party back in politics with a swing state bash. They advertised the fete with slogans like “party your way to the polls.” With a U.S. map hanging on the wall, the party favored its guests with free stamps for their absentee ballots and computer access to a voter information website.

“It basically was a party to give people from swing states a lot of love,” said

Chase, who got the idea after working with the League of Pissed Off Voters last summer.

“We want to support people, remind them that their vote is important,” she said.

BLAME THE COLLEGE, NOT THE STUDENTS

Voting in one’s home state, rather than from a school address, is not a new trend, said Alex Keyssar ’69, Stirling professor of history and social policy at the Kennedy School of Government. He said there has been a movement to increase absentee voting within the last 20 or 30 years, probably in an effort to increase voter turnout. The trend of voting from a college address has become more available only in the latter half of the 20th century, due to less stringent definitions of what constitutes residency, said Keyssar.

“I don’t see strategic voting as an ethical issue because people have ties to both places—that’s always been one of the complexities of student voting,” Keyssar said. “Strategic voting is really a contradiction—it is a phenomenon created by the Electoral College. It is a logical response to the system as it is now structured. The electoral college has done that. Students haven’t done that.”

According to a national survey by the Institute of Politics released last week, 42 percent of students plan to vote via absentee ballot.

Tozeski says students are more conscientious about sending in their ballots this year. “Many people took care of registering during the summer,” she said. “Lots of Massachusetts students from as far away as Pennsylvania are driving home to go vote.”

The right to vote in a state that counts now confers some on-campus prestige.

Barraged by campaign mailings, calls and pollsters, students from swing states are enjoying their elite status.

Floridian Leroy Terrelonge III ’07 said he was basking in his new power as a swing state voter.

“It does make me feel important,” said fellow Floridian Elena C. Castaneda ’08. “I feel like I actually am going to have a lot of say in what happens.”

And that makes some Boston natives jealous.

“My two New Mexico roommates make fun of me for not having their voting power,” said Greg M. Schmidt ’06, campaigns director for the College Dems. But he says he is campaigning extra hard to make up for it.

And Kendall points out that even though Republicans will not carry a state like Massachusetts, they should still make sure to vote so that politicians see the conservative views of some of their constituents.

“We want to give the President the strongest support possible,” she said, “but also support Republicans in other state races as well.”

—Staff writer Faryl W. Ury can be reached at ury@fas.harvard.edu.

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