Vote... Because You Can
Candidates for office in Saratoga Springs often win local elections by a small margin of votes. In the 2005 mayoral race, for instance, Democratic candidate Valerie Keehn triumphed over her incumbent Republican opponent by just 161 votes with the help of 107 Skidmore students. It is thus not uncommon for students to play a significant role in shaping local election outcomes—yet most choose not to. Of the nearly 400 students registered to vote in Saratoga, a mere 130 showed up at the Intercultural Center (ICC) in Case Center to make their voices heard last Tuesday.
Low voter turnout on campus can in part be attributed to the distance students perceive between their interests and the issues prioritized in local debates by longtime community members. Despite the status of individual students as only temporary Saratoga residents, the interests of the student body as a whole hardly change in the long run. It is therefore reasonable and necessary for students to play an active role in community discussions that impact them, such as those revolving around safety. As Assistant Professor of Government Chris Mann pointed out at an Honors Forum discussion last Wednesday, "In the wake of last weekend's tragic events, if candidates had visited campus and promised to put sidewalks or lights on Clinton Street, many more Skidmore students would have been motivated to vote."
Increased community-campus dialogue would encourage Skidmore students to engage politically at the local level and ameliorate the controversial nature of their participation.
The Fight for Local Enfranchisement
Skidmore students were not long ago disenfranchised in Saratoga. In October 1988, the Saratoga County Board of Elections rejected nearly 170 students who attempted to register to vote, on the basis of their residence in campus housing. Ten students responded by filing a lawsuit against two county election commissioners with the help of the state’s ACLU chapter.
A month later, a federal court ruled that the students could indeed vote in Saratoga in the 1988 elections. The same plaintiffs sought a more conclusive judgment, which came in the form of a December 1991 court ruling that granted “all Skidmore College students who have applied or will apply to register to vote as residents of dormitories or other on-campus housing” the right to do so.
Until 2001, Skidmore’s locally registered voters had to cast their ballots at an off-campus location, which likely deterred many from voting at all. Since the voting district encompassing the college at the time had grown too large – with 1,235 people registered, including 732 Skidmore students – the City Council drew a new one around the campus, designating the ICC as its polling location.
Skidmore’s on-campus polling place has remained controversial over the past decade. In 2002, the City Council considered moving the site downtown, though the effort failed. According to Andrea Wise of the college’s Office of Communications and Marketing, “President Glotzbach was instrumental in working with city leaders to encourage them to not change the location of the voting booth.” Nevertheless, she went on to say, “The issue of the polling place on the Skidmore campus has been a lively one over the years.”
Despite past court victories, Skidmore students have been challenged at the polls in numerous recent elections. In 2003, Republican poll watchers reportedly questioned students about their residency as they entered the ICC to vote. During a 2009 special congressional election to fill Kirsten Gillibrand’s US House seat, Republican candidate Jim Tedisco’s campaign challenged the votes cast by Skidmore students, claiming that instances of voter fraud on campus had to be addressed.
This past Election Day, a group of Skidmore students set up a table in Case Center encouraging others in a nonpartisan manner to vote. They felt troubled by interactions they had a few hours before the polls closed. Seeing that students were handing out free pizza and cookies to voters, members of the Saratoga Springs Republican Committee (SSRC) sought to shut down the table, viewing the set-up as potentially coercive and implying that they might challenge the votes already cast on campus.
Joseph Murphy from the Skidmore Office of Residential Life served as an election inspector on campus this year and did not take issue with the students’ initiative, as they were not advocating for specific candidates. Murphy described the interactions between the involved parties as “awkward,” but did not view the questioning by SSRC members as an act of intimidation.
In a phone conversation, Saratoga County Commissioner of Elections Roger J. Schiera downplayed the events that transpired at the college. Having been contacted on Tuesday night by concerned SSRC members, Schiera admitted that he thought little of the claims made against the students; nor did he feel it was likely that SSRC members had intimidated anyone. Schiera shared, “Nothing interfered with the voting process. It didn’t seem terribly significant from our point of view.”
Danny Meyers (’16), a Government Department student present at the table for most of the day, saw the events differently, explaining, “That’s intimidation. I don’t care if you do it with a smile on your face. That’s still intimidation.” Meyers maintained that the act of volunteering an entire day to encourage students to develop the habit of voting should be commended rather than questioned.
Given the fact that 128 of the 130 Skidmore students who turned out this year voted to re-elect Democratic Mayor Joanne Yepsen and largely supported the other Democrats running for local office, it seems perfectly plausible that the liberal bias of the Skidmore student body, rather than students’ level of familiarity with Saratoga politics, continues to attract backlash from some right-leaning community members.
Stephen Rodriguez, chair of the SSRC, said that when elections come around, “due to the high enrollment of Democrats at Skidmore, some Republicans will look for a way to keep students from voting.” Rodriguez was not present on campus when members of his committee confronted the students tabling on Election Day, but commented, “You can’t disenfranchise voters… If Brigham Young University was here in Saratoga, Republicans would be lining up with similar food tables.” The SSRC chairman went on to say, “Skidmore has had enough trauma this week. If any kind of intimidation was perceived, I apologize for that.”
Regardless of their intentions, the SSRC members present on campus last Tuesday should consider the unintended consequences of their actions. As Associate Professor of Government Bob Turner sees it, “If Republicans don’t want Skidmore students to vote, they should ignore them rather than rile them up by threatening to take away the ballot box.”
Granted, many community members, regardless of partisan affiliation, would prefer that uninformed Skidmore students refrain from voting in Saratoga elections. For that reason, Nancy Goldberg of the Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee suggested, “There are as many Democrats as Republicans who believe Skidmore students should not have the right to vote here.” Students should thus not take for granted their ability to participate in Saratoga politics, as it is a privilege that many local residents would be glad to see taken away.
More importantly, if students wish to live in a community that represents their interests and encourages their expression of those interests, they must make their voices heard regularly by voting in local elections.