Looking Back

Tompkins County and the On-Again, Off-Again Student Vote

by Carol K. Kammen

Things are different today, but after the opening of Cornell University in 1868, many people wondered what would happen if students were allowed to vote. They found out in November 1870, when it became clear that Cornell students had influenced the outcome of a local election. Two hundred students voted that year: 30 for the Democratic ticket, the rest for the Republican. The Democrats blamed their loss on the student vote.

In 1872, of the 500 students at the university, 110 were eligible to vote and in that election every student who was over the age of 21 went to the polls, 70 casting a vote for U.S. Grant and 40 for Horace Greeley. As this was the first election in which they were qualified to vote, none wanted to miss the chance to do so.

The political affiliation of the senior class of 1873 listed 51 Republicans, 11 Independents, 20 Liberals and six Democrats. Students insisted that they had “pecuniary interests” in Ithaca and in fact, it was estimated that students spent about $7,000 a week in the village. Students were interested in street lighting, and in having sidewalks rather than the rough unpaved streets of the 1870s, with boards at the crossings. They were also concerned about public health in the village, noting that drainage was inadequate and there was an annual sickness, sometimes called the Ithaca or Genessee fever, a mild form of malaria.

Local opinion varied, but in 1880 the District Attorney thought it a settled issue “that students generally have no legal right to vote” while attending an institution of learning. This suited the Democrats. Merritt King, a prominent local lawyer, quoted the New York Constitution, which read “for the purpose of voting, no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence … while a student of any seminary of learning.” King interpreted this to mean that if a student’s future residency was undetermined or uncertain that “he can vote at the place from when he came, and not elsewhere.”

His opinion lingered on. At times, students were allowed to register and vote, and at other times they were not. Women, of course, could not cast a ballot in a political election until 1917.

Students pointed out that barbers and teamsters and even lawyers sometimes only remained in a place a short amount of time, while students had, for the most part, a four-year stake in the locality.

This was true in college towns all across the country. As late as 2004, a student at Hamilton College was told that he was not a “permanent resident” and had to vote from his parents’ home. Students elsewhere were also threatened with legal action if they attempted to vote.

Today election law reads that an “individual is qualified to register and vote from a particular residence … whether he or she has manifested an intent to adopt that residence as a permanent and principal home.”

Posted in Tompkins County.