Can the ASSU’s Voter Registration Drive Really Be Non-Partisan in Effect?

The Stanford Daily ran a good piece today about, among other things, the ASSU’s non-partisan voter registration drive. I don’t doubt that the students leading it have the best of intentions. And, at least according to a report by the University of Michigan, whose voluntary student organizations likely fall under the same regulations on political activity by non-profits, this is completely legal.

But let’s face it: a voter registration drive can never be non-partisan. The population being targeted for voter registration will always have biases, and registering more of that population will skew the electorate in a certain direction. It’s an entirely legitimate use of private or political party funds to support such drives. But government funding of voter drives targeting a certain population is very dangerous. Unless publicly funded voter registration drives could reach every citizen nearly equally, they will have a significant impact on the makeup of the voter base. The result is that politicians can buy votes, and corporations and special interest groups can lobby government to register their favored electorates.

You can frequently make a strong case that targeting a certain population for voter registration is beneficial to society, even if you agree that it’s on the whole a bad thing for government to do (or be able to do). Stanford students are a wonderful example. Who can object to having more Stanford students registered to vote? Certainly the Whitman, Fiorina, and anti-Prop 19 campaigns would object (although they may not say so publicly), but you might not sympathize with them. Or you may say that the ASSU efforts to register student voters just counter-balance the corporate funding on the other side.

Instead of an all-out prohibition, perhaps you feel you could examine each instance of government funding of a voter registration drive and decide whether it’s OK. It seems that deciding this on a case-by-case basis is only an improvement over a total prohibition, since at worst your discretion would lead you to reject every case, which would be identical to the prohibition. Unfortunately, if government is allowed to run voter registration drives, then it won’t be you and your (supposed) good judgment deciding which populations to target. It will be politicians and lobbyists with goals counter to yours.

It’s a little different that the ASSU is funding a voter registration drive for elections of a different government. The ASSU Executive isn’t doing this out of self interest, and they appear to be targeting the entire Stanford campus, which is a logical (and not plainly politically motivated) choice for them. (I doubt, however, that they are targeting undergrads and grads equally, or on-campus and off-campus students equally.) But this doesn’t make it any better.

The ASSU is federally subsidized. It doesn’t have to pay income taxes, even though it enjoys the use of federal services just as much as other partisan organizations and corporations that do pay taxes. In return for being exempt from taxes, it pledges to not conduct partisan political activities. As cited above, this voter registration drive does not appear to violate that restriction. But would it be a partisan political activity, in your mind, if Chevron set up “non-partisan” charitable organizations in every conservative-leaning town in the California Central Valley and O.C. to register voters? In the eyes of the current law, how is that any different from what the ASSU is doing? How could you write a law to distinguish the two cases that wouldn’t be open to further abuse? If you are against one, you must be against both.

Also, there are many students who don’t support the ASSU’s voter drive or who worry that it will lead more people to vote in ways they disagree with. While I strongly support marriage equality, it’s certainly true that a Catholic student wouldn’t want his student funds going to register voters who will overwhelmingly oppose his beliefs. What is the recourse for a student who objects to ASSU voter drives? They can’t get a refund, since the $16,000 for the Executive Cabinet (of which John Haskell, chief organizer, is part), comes from the ASSU endowment. All students in theory are equal shareholders of ASSU (per the constitution), but they have no way to refund endowment spending when it’s counter to their beliefs.

Do not misunderstand me. It is always a good thing to have more people voting. But when government decides which groups to enlist, it inevitably favors certain groups over others.

So, government-funded voter registration drives are a bad idea, even if well-intentioned. And an ASSU-funded voter registration drive is no exception. I hope the ASSU ends this voter drive and focuses on their important role of representing students on campus.

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