How 9 sweet-faced, white-haired elders suppressed 500+ students’ votes in one college town

And how you can prevent disenfranchisement of student voters from your school.

11 mins read
By Shuri

This piece is based on an interview of Joe Schmitz by the author.

Joe Schmitz, then a professor at Western Illinois University, was an election judge in 2008 in the small, rural college town of Macomb, Illinois.  Even in the midst of corn country, galvanized students wanted to vote for Barack Obama that year. Many of these young adults were first-time voters who braved 40-degree temperatures, continuous drizzle, and gusty winds to exercise their rights as citizens. 

They registered.  They looked for and found out where to vote.  They showed up on Election Day and they waited in line.  At the Wesley Methodist Church, two long lines snaked from the voting area, down the stairs, and through the doors.  Outside, one line stretched as far as a block or two, through the parking lot and along the sidewalk. 

The students waited in line.  And they waited. And they waited more, some waiting for longer than four hours.  In the end, as many as 20 percent of the students weren’t able to vote because they had to go to class or just got too cold and tired.  Many students were effectively disenfranchised – by some of the nicest people who ever stole someone’s voting rights.  

Election Judges – sworn to uphold elections laws – manage the polling stations from when they open until they close and all the votes are tallied.  Most importantly, they make decisions about who can receive and turn in a ballot. In 2008, these venerable gray-haired senior citizens were afraid student votes would outnumber town residents’ votes.  In contravention to the oath they took, they discouraged student voting in several ways:

  • They slowed the lines by slowing access to the voting area to a trickle in two of three student precincts. 
    • They stopped all voting when any single voter had a problem, thus delaying all the waiting students.
    • They handled every problem with leisured thoroughness.
  • They directed some students to the end of another long line after all the time they’d already spent waiting in the wrong line.
  • They refused to offer provisional ballots for students who might have been qualified voters.
  • They directed students to other (incorrect) precincts in other neighborhoods.
  • They directed police attention towards students after someone called the police to stop town residents from taunting the students remaining in line, even after the polls had closed.  

Using these ploys, nine Election Judges prevented at least 500 students from voting.  

As it happened, Professor Schmitz had assigned student teams from his undergraduate Research Methods class to conduct exit polls of voters at three polling stations in the student precincts.  These research teams collected data about a local race for State Attorney at the student polling locations.

Schmitz sent letters to the County Clerk, Macomb’s Mayor and Police Chief, and the university president and provost that described the student voters’ disenfranchisement.  These letters, documenting voting irregularities, raised uncomfortable topics for election judges during the post-election debriefing meeting. When election judges were confronted with the voting irregularities that they had condoned, one “sweet” grandmother claimed that many college students “really lived in Chicago” – a local code phrase that meant “not from around here, and not like us.”

 As the Acting Clerk shushed her, Schmitz reminded the meeting attendees: “The 2000 Census recount demanded by the county increased our population and added about 15 percent to the federal/state grants by including college students as county residents.  We’re happy to take the money – and we need to let our students vote just like the rest of us.” 

Don’t let voter suppression happen to students who attend your school!

Following his experience on as an election judge, Schmitz considered what had happened.  Now he has concerns about the 2020 election because of the increasingly partisan electorate.  He has developed a set of strategies to limit student voter disenfranchisement at local polling stations in the upcoming elections.  These strategies cover multiple actions that people who care about student voting rights can use to facilitate and safeguard student voting in the electoral process:

Students – gotta prepare!  Especially first-time voters. 

Before voting: 

  • Know where your polling place is; check it out before the primary and Nov. 6. 
  • Bring ID and proof of local residence. 
  • Speed up the voting for all: Bring your own pre-filled sample ballots. 

Voting Day:

  • Get up early, allow extra time to vote – and vote early!  Before voting lines form. 
  • Give or share transportation.  Checkout Uber or Lyft. 
  • If you’re prevented from voting:
    Keep your cool.  The very worst outcome is starting trouble that will be used against all students. 
    Tell a Democratic election monitor – and give them all the documentation that you can. 
    Video voter suppression with your phone – if your state laws permit. 

Professors, teachers,  and organizers (professors should be non-partisan – mandatory at state schools) 

  • Encourage students to cast informed votes.
  • Provide students maps with the student polling locations identified.
  • Remind students that they will need government ID (and often proof of residence).

Faculty Senates and other campus organizations

  • Should press for on-campus student voter registration and voting.  Failing these accommodations, university officials and faculty can demand that voter registration and polling sites be made accessible and easy for students to find. 

University administrators

  • should – early-on – raise student voting rights and accommodation issues to local public officials (and citizen groups like The League of Women Voters). 
  • Administrators should press county governments to facilitate student voting – and perhaps remind local decision-makers of the benefits that their region gets from the college or university.

Party officials:

  •  Have phone (and cell phone) numbers readily available for the City Clerk, City/County Sheriff, Mayor, and a friendly reporter and/or local TV station. 
  • Contact local legal associations to find an attorney who will be on call if the need arises.
  • Redirect voters to the correct precinct (offer transportation if possible).  Show, text, or email voters the map from your cell phone! 
  • Bring pizza and soft drinks to voters still waiting in lines after the polls have closed. 
  • If residents hassle students: 
    Call the police.  
    Ensure that police know it’s not the students who are causing the trouble.
    Call an attorney.
    Call the news, including the campus newspaper! 

Precinct volunteers

  • Create a one-page document to ensure that all voters know the rules in your state that govern: 
    Polling places.
    Election monitors and election observers (most states treat them differently). 
    Video recording in polling places.
    “Interfering in elections.” 

Election Judges and other polling place staff

  • Try to establish cordial relations with counterparts.  Stress that it is a sworn duty to help all registered voters vote.  Make it known that deliberately suppressing voting by students (or any legal voter) is a felony.  Most volunteers don’t seek to commit felonies. 
  • Set up systems that divert “problem or provisional voters” to one election judge “Ace.” Then let your Ace handle and direct these voters to avoid delaying the entire voting line. 
  • Use maps to show the locations of all the polling places for each precinct. 
  • Coordinate Election Judges’ lunch and dinner breaks to keep voting lines moving while judges eat meals (traditions of judges bringing and sharing food can help). 
  • Actively defuse student dismay, anger at long lines, and voters being disqualified.  
  • Keep calm and vigilant throughout the entire process, especially when it’s late and everyone is exhausted.  During that 2008 election at Macomb Precincts (1-3), Election Judges worked a 20-hour shift.

More information:

  1. To get information about how students can register and vote in 2020, see: Campus Vote Project
  2. Voter Registration by Students Raises Cloud of Consequences,” New York Times , September 7, 2008.
  3. Young Voters in the 2008 Election,” Pew Research Center, November 13, 2008.
  4. College Students Registered to Vote Turned Out at 87% in 2008, The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, April 25, 2012.

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