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Virtual Education Is Impacting College Students' Access To Voting

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The pandemic has upended a lot of things about campus life for U.S. college students, including voting. NHPR's Casey McDermott reports on what that's meant in New Hampshire, a state where the student vote has made a difference.

CASEY MCDERMOTT, BYLINE: The 2016 presidential race in New Hampshire was decided by just 2,700 votes. Since then, college students have been at the center of state House debates over new Republican-backed residency laws. They've been plaintiffs when those same laws ended up in court. And they've been wooed by Democratic politicians who know that this small but powerful constituency can give their party an edge in tight statewide races. And while students like Jonathan Briffault say all of this attention is flattering, it can feel a little hollow.

JONATHAN BRIFFAULT: It's a little bit disappointing that students are seen as kind of playthings for the major political parties.

MCDERMOTT: Briffault, a senior at Dartmouth, is just the kind of student whose ability to vote in New Hampshire has been most tenuous the last few years. Like most of Dartmouth's student body, he's from out of state. But to him, New Hampshire feels most like home.

BRIFFAULT: I literally have not lived in another place for the same amount of time. Like, from a sheer week's perspective...

MCDERMOTT: Dartmouth limited the number of students allowed back on campus this fall because of the pandemic. Briffault is living temporarily in Vermont, but he still plans to send an absentee ballot to New Hampshire.

BRIFFAULT: The rules actually affect me in Hanover much more than they do at home. I pay taxes in New Hampshire, and so that's where I feel I should vote.

MCDERMOTT: As recently as this month, politicians were still fighting over whether the law does allow students like Briffault to vote here. A few weeks ago, the Republican Party asked the state to ban students from voting absentee if they were living and learning remotely. That prompted a quick rebuke from Democrats but also from the attorney general, who said the law is clear. A college student, or any other voter, doesn't lose their right to vote just because they leave the state temporarily, as long as they intend to return.

This latest saga over student voting came and went fairly quickly, but it did hit home why Dartmouth students like Cait McGovern have been walking such a tight rope in their voter turnout efforts this fall.

CAIT MCGOVERN: We are a strictly nonpartisan organization.

MCDERMOTT: McGovern, Briffault and other campus leaders have been working for months to get as many of their fellow students to vote as possible. That includes a special website to make it easier for Dartmouth students who were already registered in New Hampshire to request an absentee ballot with just a few clicks. But they're also careful to leave that choice up to each student.

MCGOVERN: Our only goal is ensuring the students know their voter rights and that students are able to vote easily during this election.

MCDERMOTT: It's not clear how many students are planning to cast a ballot in New Hampshire while they're away from campus. But for all of the emphasis on that group of students, there are also others, like Jennifer Qian, who switched her voter registration from Hanover, N.H., to her hometown, Chapel Hill, N.C.

JENNIFER QIAN: I remember, like, a while ago, I was like, I don't know where I should vote. Like, I'm not sure.

MCDERMOTT: Qian voted in New Hampshire during the presidential primary, but she returned back to North Carolina earlier this year. Between the pandemic and some other plans on the horizon, it's not clear when she'll be back in New Hampshire.

QIAN: I guess I was just, like, glad that I have - like, I know I have the option to vote in either location. And for me, I just, like, wanted to be able to vote in North Carolina and kind of, like, make my voice heard more, like, here, especially with some of the local elections here.

MCDERMOTT: And for now, North Carolina, not New Hampshire, feels most like her home. For NPR News, I'm Casey McDermott in Manchester.

(SOUNDBITE OF WISE IN TIME'S "LORD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.