Fighting for the Local Vote
When Young Han '06 decided to register to vote in Clinton, he never thought his simple request would soon be the focus of national attention.
Some states allow students to register where they attend college, but Oneida County had never let a student do so. "Legally, states can't discriminate against students when it comes to voting," Han said. "States must allow students to register where they attend college if they meet the state's general requirements."
Instead, the Oneida County Board of Elections suggested that Han get absentee ballots from his hometown of Lynnwood, Wash., a suburb of Seattle. The economics major was not satisfied with this option.
"As residents of Clinton for nine or more months of the year, students have just as much right to vote in local elections as any other resident," Han said, adding that he also worried that making it difficult to register to vote would decrease political activity among his fellow students.
The runaround to register, Han said, was "irritating," as registration procedures in New York State "are a patchwork and hodgepodge of local, state and federal rules." The 26th Amendment stipulates that anyone over 18 can vote where he or she resides. But, according to Han, "It is very confusing and left up to the counties how they determine residency, especially where college students are concerned."
Han began contacting legal and civil aid societies for advice on how to fix what he saw as a system tantamount to disenfranchisement. His efforts attracted the attention of Rolling Stone magazine, whose editors featured Han's efforts in an article last May titled "Mock the Vote." The article highlighted a number of student efforts across the country to increase voter turnout among 18- to 21-year-olds, and how less politically aware and active students are when it is hard for them to register.
The Rolling Stone article captured the attention of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, and from there came more national attention, including a Sept. 19 article in the Washington Post. Han was also interviewed by Renee Montagne on NPR's Morning Edition on Sept. 29.
In September, the Oneida County Board of Elections decided to allow Han and other college students to register in the county. After the decision, Han and Professor of Comparative Literature Nancy Rabinowitz distributed registration forms around campus. All the forms were soon gone, and "quite a number of students are now registered to vote here," Han said. He also mentioned a Hamilton student who is a U.S. citizen but whose parents reside in Singapore, saying that "she was able to register in Clinton and now can vote."
Most recently, Han and Hamilton College were in the national spotlight on Oct. 10 when NBC Nightly News ran a story about the increasing numbers of 18 to 21-year-olds registering to vote. According to the report, record numbers of college students are expected to vote in the presidential election, and NBC featured Han's work in Oneida County as being indicative of this culture shift. A film crew followed Han around campus, and the news team interviewed both Han and Caroline O'Shea '07, president of the College Democrats.
Han hasn't stopped at Oneida County. He has since co-founded the Student Voting Rights Campaign to help mobilize other students across the country. "Through our relationships with organizations like Rock the Vote and the New Voters Project, we have access to hundreds of campus activists across the nation," Han said. "We also maintain an e-mail listserv with more than 120 subscribers representing the leaders of local and nationwide voters rights groups and youth activist groups."
While not a fan of politics as such, Han is no stranger to the electoral process; before coming to Hamilton, he ran for state representative in Washington State. He placed third out of four candidates, and while it was a learning experience, Han realized that there are other ways to make a difference. "Politicians themselves don't change the world. Progress only comes when people start talking to their neighbors and start mobilizing to effect the changes they'd like to see in their world."
-- Alexandra Sear '05