In 1969, you could be denied voter registration at the Ann Arbor Clerk’s Office if you weren’t “conservatively dressed.” Or if your answer to “Where did you spend your last vacation?” implied any sort of family connection or financial dependency. Or if you told the clerk that you would call your parents if you were seriously ill or had some sort of emergency.
For the majority of the University of Michigan’s history, students who attempted to register to vote in Ann Arbor faced arbitrary obstacles, like the above, aimed at their disenfranchisement. Though students resided in Ann Arbor exactly as we do today, Michigan state law was not keeping up with the development of the modern university.
Until 1971, the Michigan Constitution said that “No elector shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence by reason of his being … a student at any institution of learning.” This meant students were not counted as residents of their college towns and therefore were not granted the right to vote in the cities they were studying and living in.
The University’s mission went far beyond vocational skills and practical training; it was, and continues to be, an immersive community aimed at “developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.” Yet these future leaders and citizens had no say, no formally-observed political voice, to influence policies that would directly impact their lives.
Despite the ridiculous hurdles, students were nevertheless still determined to cast their vote here, in this maize-and-blue territory.
In a 1971 Michigan Daily article, former news reporter Chris Parks explained students’ motivations for wanting to vote in Ann Arbor.
“Many students point out that they, at present, have no control over local governments which make decisions directly affecting them,” Parks wrote. “Voting in their hometowns, they say, is meaningless as what is done there has little effect on them.”
With the modern ability to choose between voting in either your home or college state, these students’ sentiments can feel limited. Being able to vote in your home state, particularly for students who live in swing states, like Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, is just as much a privilege as is having the option to vote in Ann Arbor. But it is precisely that choice — the right to strategically ensure your voice is heard at the loudest decibel possible — that makes college voting such a powerful opportunity.
Throughout the late 1960s and early ’70s, students expressed frustration and continued to resist prohibitions from the often-restrictive clerk’s office. For the 1969 city elections, the locally-based Human Rights-Radical Independent Party handed out leaflets instructing students on how to answer the clerk’s questions to most easily obtain a ballot. Answering questions in a way that communicated independence from one’s parents and intentions to permanently stay in Ann Arbor would often help students’ chances at getting registered.
But these efforts were not always successful. A 1969 Student Government campaign to increase voter turnout “resulted in more bewildered students than registered voters,” wrote former Daily reporter Robert Kraftowitz. The campaign, which intended to bring students to City Hall to get registered, was wholly ineffective due to the inconsistent and irrelevant questions posed by city clerks. These included, but were not limited to:
- Are you self-supporting?
- Do you live in private housing?
- Where did you spend your last vacation?
If students were not more than 50% self-supporting, or spent their vacations outside of their Ann Arbor residence, they would be denied registration.
However, students who were able to register made a substantial impact: 75% of former Ann Arbor Mayor Robert Harris’s new voters were U-M students in the spring of 1969. Harris’s victory hinted at the capabilities of a mobilized student body, fueling student advocates and bitter Republican candidates alike.
In the 1970 census, students were counted as residents of their college towns for the first time in National Census history. These figures were then used to draw congressional districts on both the federal and state levels, informing the amount of financial aid the city and state receive from the federal government.
Essentially, students were being counted as citizens in conjunction with a law that made it difficult for them to exercise their basic constitutional rights.
Until 1971, a student had to meet the following criteria to register, in addition to subjective judgements from the clerk’s office:
- A student must be at least 21 years old by the date of the election.
- A student must have lived in Michigan for six months and in Ann Arbor at least 30 days before election day.
- A student must have no intention of returning home, but is uncertain of their future place of residence.
- A student must be free from parental control, regard the college town as their home and have no other home to return to in case of sickness or other affliction.
In April of 1971, the state of Michigan changed the first criterion to ‘at least 18 years old.’ A month later, the Michigan Supreme Court deemed the other rules unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment, which prohibits governments from depriving citizens of “life, liberty, or property” without fair cause.
This case, Wilkins v. Ann Arbor City Clerk, asserted what students had been advocating for years: Students cannot be denied the right to vote in their college towns.
“For voting purposes, there is no rational basis for distinguishing between students who reside at a given locality for nine months of the year and non-students who reside in the same locality for nine months of the year,” the opinion reads. “Requiring additional qualifications to vote which affect different groups unequally, whether by income, occupation, or employer, is a denial of equal protection.”
In the November 1972 election, student voices were put to the test for what was truly the first time. And they delivered.
In heavily-populated student districts in Ann Arbor, voters under 21 years old sealed victories for sheriff, circuit court judge and 22nd district state representative. The sheriff and representative winners were Democrats, and the nonpartisan circuit court judge, Shirley Burgoyne, was known for her women’s and LGBTQ+ rights advocacy. On a campus entangled with ’60s counterculture, student voters successfully advocated for progressive politics in their college town.
The voters and best had hit the polls, and from then on, student electoral action was full steam ahead.
At the first annual “Hash Festival” in ’72, the Diag was filled with political rallies, guerilla theater, rock and roll music and political speeches. In an article from The Daily, former Arts Editor Paul Travis noted the shift of students’ political focus to their newfound voting abilities.
“This past weekend Ann Arbor saw a variation on the old theme — the mixing of youth culture and traditional, electoral politics in an attempt to keep voters keyed up for yesterday’s city elections,” Travis wrote.
As the ability to act on political interest expanded, students translated their idealist worldviews into practical electoral action. Former Daily News Reporter Ralph Vartabedian examined this shift in students working with then-presidential candidate George McGovern (D-S.D.).
“In contrast to the sensational political activism of the 60s students are approaching the present presidential campaigns with a more deliberate systematic activism,” Vartabedian wrote. “Student campaign workers seem more oriented towards candidates than towards specific issues.”
The eradication of the 1918 statute, which said students were not legally residents of their college towns, gave students a unique platform to influence local, state and federal politics. In the 1971 version of Michigan’s constitution, which is still in effect today, anyone who resides in Michigan for more than 183 days of the year is considered a full resident. Living in a notoriously unpredictable “swing state,” a predominantly left-leaning student body of 40,000 could drastically impact election outcomes.
By the time 1974 rolled around, the systemic problems with student voting accessibility began to surface. Even with laws that permitted students to vote on campus, limited access to voting information and assistance made student mobilization overly complicated. After the clerk’s office closed two on-campus registration sites, students who could legally register now faced issues of physical time and space.
Neill Hollenshead, a plaintiff in Wilkins v. Ann Arbor City Clerk, saw these removals as steps to legally disenfranchise students in order to serve candidates whom students were likely to vote against.
“This is a partisan move reflecting concern with the new residents gaining political power,” Hollenshead told The Daily.
Throughout the last 50 years, student voting has at once been a prideful victory and a waning struggle. In 2012, the first year data was collected on student voting numbers, 44% of U-M students voted. In 2014, it dropped to just 14%.
Political science professor Edie Goldenberg stated that this dramatic decrease was, in part, due to lower student interest in the midterms compared to presidential elections.
“When there’s a gap between older and younger voters, it’s bigger in the midterms, because a lot of students just don’t realize how important midterms are,” Goldenberg stated.
Even for students who were motivated enough to seek it out, voting information and registration remained difficult to access on campus. Voting laws were (and are) complicated, constantly changing and can vastly differ across states. In the 1974 midterms, for example, the small number of nearby polling places and their subsequent lines down the block were discouraging.
Thomas Moran was a registrar working at the Union, which served as an on-campus polling place, that Election Day. He viewed the lack of voting efficiency as the city’s way of limiting how many students would cast their ballots.
“I think this is really disgusting,” Moran stated. “City Council has gone about as far as it can. It is pretty obvious to me that they just don’t want students to register.”
Michigan law provided a promising opportunity for students’ political expression. But the University, according to a 2021 amendment to the Higher Education Act, bears a responsibility to encourage and inform students’ democratic participation.
In 2016, Goldenberg decided to do just that. Upon discovering the low voter turnout of the two previous elections, Goldenberg started Turn Up Turnout, a faculty-student collaboration to help Michigan students reach their civic potential. She also launched the Big Ten Voting Challenge, which awards universities for high voter turnout and increases in voting rates.
In 2018, the School of Art & Design launched the Creative Campus Voting Project, which aims to make voting information and spaces accessible through visual design. A year later, the University topped it all off with the Democracy and Debate Initiative, a holistic approach to voter education on campus. The initiative is a collaborative effort among professors, campus life staff and members of student government.
Working together, these organizations and many more have worked to circumvent the problems student voters had been facing for decades. Most notably, their collaborations created the Satellite Clerk’s Office at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), which first opened in 2020. With the thoughtful design of Art & Design students and dedication of the clerk’s office staff, the UMMA was temporarily transformed into an accessible one-stop-shop for student voters.
And in a year filled with disappointment and isolation, students came together to participate in the intensely contested election between Biden and Trump — compared to the meager 14% in 2014, student voter turnout in 2020 rose to 78%.
Though the upcoming November election does not initially seem to hold the fervor and excitement of 2020, it remains all the more important to continue this exponentially increasing participation.
The 2022 ballot is a host for political issues with direct impacts on our campus population: the right to abortion, climate change and, of course, voting access. In a state with diverse political leanings, these three issues could be heavily swayed by the passionate efforts of students. In this year, we have the chance to transform our opinions and discussions into meaningful action, advocating for solutions to the problems that matter most to us.
Notably, we also have the ability to directly elect our Board of Regents, who essentially serve as the University’s governing body. Though the entire state votes for the regents at the University of Michigan, we are the only group who truly comprehends the needs and interests of the campus we inhabit.
Public Policy senior Sophie Greenberg is the president of Turn Up Turnout. The attempted suppression of voting itself, she says, is a clear indicator of its political importance and necessity.
“People tell me ‘My voting doesn’t matter. I don’t need to vote.’ If voting wasn’t important, and voting couldn’t make an impact, then there wouldn’t be so many years of fighting for the right to vote,” Greenberg stated. “If people are trying to prevent a right, then there’s a reason for that: it’s really powerful.”
Student voting rights have substantially improved since the days of basing registration off of a student’s clothing choices. Generations of mobilizers, change-makers and doers have provided students with the ease to vote that we enjoy today.
But improvement cannot imply perfection, or even stagnation. With every election and every ballot cast, we hold the unique opportunity to impact policy for a brief but crucial four-or-so years.
Democratic expression, particularly for students, has never been, and likely never will be, perfect. To quote the poet Archibald MacLeish: “Democracy is never a thing done. Democracy is something that a nation must be doing.”
American civic life has always been fragile, especially for marginalized groups that have historically been silenced and stripped of their basic human rights under the hands of bigoted law and policy. As students in this state, on this campus, in this time, we are now indebted more than ever to fostering the democracy we wish to see.
Statement Correspondent Emily Blumberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.