Beginning this fall, Sarah Lawrence College will implement provisions of proposed legislation intended to increase the number of eligible students registered to vote, introduced in the New York State Senate by Jeffrey Klein (Bronx, Westchester), and cosponsored by 10 other senators.
The College will facilitate the voter registration process on campus by making both the New York State and the national registration forms available when students register for their courses and provide collection points for them as required in the bill, SB 542. An endowed fund will support a paid student worker to provide information and assist students. The local League of Women Voters will also provide counsel and assistance on campus, as they have done for many years. Students and faculty members will further encourage voter registration by organizing discussion forums, speakers and civic-related activities on campus.
At a press conference on May 5, Sarah Lawrence politics faculty member David Peritz announced the new procedures the College will follow. He noted that the entire faculty unanimously voted to endorse BS542, an act to amend the election law in relation to voter registration enrollment. "As a faculty, we encourage our students to be informed participants at all levels of American politics, and recognize that current registration procedures often raise obstacles for students attending residential colleges," he said.
Citing a study that looked at numbers of students registered to vote, conducted several years ago, Klein said that colleges, particularly private colleges, did not do a very good job of advising students how to register. "We have to look for ways to get more and more young people active in the political process," he said. "Voting is the most important thing you can do to effect change, which is why students should be educated on the voting process so their voices can be heard. We need to replicate what Sarah Lawrence is doing on their campus on every campus in the state of New York," declared Klein.
Working with such organizations as the New York Public Interest Group, New York University Law School Brennan Center for Justice, DEMOS, legislators, elected student leaders and other voter registration advocates, principal author of the legislation and founder of The Help Students Vote! Coalition, Pamela Julian '09, recruited the essential support for this student voter registration initiative. She has also launched similar efforts in her home state of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and in Washington D.C. Julian’s work began as an academic project while a student of much admired Sarah Lawrence politics faculty member Raymond Seidelman.
"Pamela began this effort as a student in a fieldwork placement sponsored by our late colleague, and his influence continues," said politics faculty member Peritz. "It is especially appropriate that the pilot project for this legislation begin at this College. We believe it will demonstrate the relatively easy steps that schools can take to encourage their students to participate in American democracy and society."
Julian read a frequently repeated declaration Seidelman impressed upon his students: "Democracy is not what we have. It is what we aspire to be. So dare to aspire to it, for in the process you become a democratic citizen. It takes courage to live as a democratic citizen. That’s why we fight for it. This will involve you at great risk, but it’s worth it because it will make you free."
Yonkers City Council President Chuck Lesnick, stating that there is "nothing like a good issue to motivate young people to vote," noted in his remarks that the youth segment of the population is the cohort that votes the least.
Politics faculty member Samuel Abrams added: "Political science has observed a generational decline in turnout over time, and this may help reverse such a trend. We know that voting tends to be a habitual act, so those who vote and become civically active when they first are eligible tend to be life-long voters. As turnout is generally low in the United States, this may help increase turnout and promote the basic idea that people should participate in electoral politics in modern democracies."
Olivia "Vicki" Ford '60, a former councilwoman for the town of Eastchester and an alumna and trustee of Sarah Lawrence, added her voice of support. "I came from Minnesota, the heartland, and I found a new identity at Sarah Lawrence College as I found adulthood. Sarah Lawrence is making it possible for those turning 18 to take on the commitment of being good citizens, one of the most important things that can happen in their lives. It is time for every citizen in this country to shoulder the responsibility of our freedom," she said.