Letter to the Editor: Residency Enough for Voting Rights
Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
I’ve heard it said that Kenyon students ought not to vote in Gambier or that they ought at least to refrain from voting on issues that matter only to permanent residents.
I disagree, and here is why:
First of all, while it is true that most students will leave Gambier when they graduate, the fact is that many Americans are similarly mobile. According to a 2005 report in Migration News, in the four years that it takes to get a Kenyon degree, about one fifth of American citizens change the county in which they live. If all such mobile voters were to self-disenfranchise, we’d lose 20 percent of the voting population. By neither law nor logic does a future move mean much about present voting.
It’s also worth noting that a good number of students stay in or eventually return to Gambier after graduation. When I last checked, among the many Kenyon alumni in Knox County are lawyers, medical doctors, secondary school teachers, business CEOs, firefighters, therapists, librarians, ministers, farmers, a regional planner, a reporter, an insurance agent, a health commissioner and more.
At what point in the lives of such citizens is it appropriate for them to take seriously their local civic duties and participate in elections? The earlier the better seems to be the clear answer: studies show that young voters become lifelong voters.
As for the question of local issues in which students are said to have no stake (such as tax levies or school board elections), some years ago a Kenyon student wrote to “the Ethicist” at The New York Times Magazine with a question about this very issue:
“I am a student at Kenyon College. Some local residents were upset that hundreds of students were allowed to vote for a property tax that will fall entirely on the permanent residents. Many students favor the measure as a way to finance the local elementary school. ... Was it ethical for us to vote? —Anonymous, Gambier, Ohio.”
“The Ethicist” replied: “Your voting was more than ethical; it was admirable. ... It is irrelevant that few students pay property taxes. We eliminated economic requirements for voting long ago: you needn’t own property; you needn’t pay a poll tax. Even people too poor to pay nearly any taxes may vote.”
To expand on the point: in American democracy we do not differentiate between stakeholders and non-stakeholders once something is on the ballot. “Permanent” residents with no children may vote on school bond issues and landless renters may vote on real estate tax issues.
Moreover, it isn’t at all clear what makes someone a stakeholder. Kenyon students quite plausibly should care about the local secondary schools.
When new and talented young faculty are weighing a job offer from Kenyon, the quality of the local school system is one of the many things they often take into consideration. When Knox County public schools are well funded and well run, all local enterprises have an easier time attracting the best young workers, and all of us consequently benefit.
It makes perfect sense that students who live in Gambier should vote in Gambier. And remember to register! The deadline is Oct. 9.
— Lewis Hyde, Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing