Previously barred from canvassing in the dorms by University policy, the College Democrats held a last-ditch voter registration effort in most campus residence halls.
With the deadline to register to vote for next month’s presidential election at midnight Monday, about 40 members of the group met at the Union to get clipboards and registration forms.
The group wasn’t allowed to coordinate canvasses in the dorms under University Housing’s solicitation policy, said Nathaniel Eli Coats Styer, chair of the University’s chapter of College Democrats. The University is prohibited from using public resources to support or oppose a political candidate by state and federal laws.
“It wasn’t that it was banned before,” he said. “It was that it was a grey area.”
The group has encouraged its members who live in residence halls to talk to their neighbors about Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and help them register to vote, but the group had never held a coordinated canvassing effort before. The College Dems registered about 60 people in two hours last night.
Before, the only group allowed to register voters in the residence halls was Voice Your Vote, a non-partisan commission of the Michigan Student Assembly. Voice Your Vote’s access to the residence halls was temporarily restricted last week after Housing officials reported accusations of partisanship amongst members of the MSA-sponsored group.
Styer said a decision to allow the College Democrats to canvass the dorms was made after members from the group and lawyers for the Obama campaign met with representatives from Housing and the Office of the General Counsel. He said the attorneys argued that allowing the College Democrats to carry out campaign efforts in the dorms didn’t conflict with the University’s requirement to refrain from endorsing or opposing candidates.
Styer said an Obama lawyer notified him of the decision, adding that Housing would be notifying residence hall staff early this week.
University Housing officials could not be reached for comment.
Before volunteers for the College Democrats were allowed to canvass last night, LSA senior Sam Marvin, who coordinates the group’s residence hall outreach, explained voter registration law and how to fill out forms.
Marvin said an agreement reached between Housing and College Democrats required the group to follow the same rules as Voice Your Vote: all volunteers had to wear nametags and carry their MCards, they couldn’t approach students with “no solicitation” signs on their doors and they couldn’t canvass after 10 p.m.
Unlike Voice Your Vote, though, College Democrats volunteers are only allowed to canvass in their own dorms, Marvin said. That is, residents of Markley Hall are only allowed to knock on doors in Markley.
The College Democrats don’t have to remain nonpartisan. They are free to wear T-shirts supporting Obama, pass out literature about the Illinois senator and encourage students to vote for the candidate.
Still, Marvin cautioned members of the group to be on their best behavior.
“We can’t have any complaints,” said Marvin, who also asked group members to keep track of which doors they knocked on. “If there are any incidents, that’s how we can defend ourselves.”
Marvin said volunteers didn’t report any problems last night. He said a few resident advisers told his group members they weren’t allowed to canvass in the dorms.
Brent Colburn, spokesman for Obama’s Michigan campaign, praised the decision to permit partisan campaigning in the residence halls.
“We are happy with the University’s decision and believe it will allow voter registration efforts on campus to reach more eligible voters and get them to the polls on Election Day,” he said.
Brady Smith, chair of the University’s chapter of the College Republicans, said he was taken aback and wasn’t aware of such a decision.
“I’m a little surprised that they were able to leverage that after the alleged violation,” Smith said, referring to accusations that people were registering voters in the dorms in violation of University policy.
“I’d imagine that’s going to apply to both ends of the spectrum,” Smith said, of the decision to allow partisan campaigning in the residence halls. “We’ll be starting this week.”