Magann: Without Representation

Hanover’s attack on the bonfire highlights the importance of student voting.

by Matthew Magann | 10/26/18 2:02am

In the ongoing battles over student voting in New Hampshire, the anti-vote side latches onto the claim that students aren’t “real” residents of New Hampshire, and so don’t deserve the right to vote. And they’ve acted on it. A court recently struck down Senate Bill 3, one of two recent voter-regulation bills, but House Bill 1264, another bill that effectively disenfranchises students, goes into effect on July 1. Unless something changes, many students will still essentially lose their right to vote.

Granted, many students at New Hampshire colleges won’t live in the state long-term. Therefore, the line goes, students don’t deserve a vote, since they lack some vaguely-defined commitment to the state. Drawing that logic out reveals its incoherence. Perhaps, one might argue, living in New Hampshire for four years is too little of a commitment. Let’s say five years qualifies a person as worthy. What, then, of a lifelong New Hampshire resident planning to retire to Florida in four years? Or someone with a terminal illness? By the long-term commitment logic, both should lose their right to vote. That’s clearly absurd, and no one could seriously claim that disenfranchisement as just. That said, anyone who considers long-term commitment a prerequisite for voting needs to apply that principle equally. The impossibility of doing so reveals the argument’s absurdity.

Perhaps, if applied in any reasonable manner, long-term residency requirements would unfairly exclude many of this state’s residents. But let’s examine the root logic of the long-term commitment argument. Ultimately, proponents place value on long-term residency due to the impacts of policies. Understandably, they worry about people voting on policies and leaving before the effects materialize. But the inverse is even more concerning: without universal suffrage, policies affect those who have no say in them.

Dartmouth students experienced just such a case with the Homecoming bonfire. The town of Hanover, in all its lawsuit-averse wisdom, threatened Dartmouth with revocation of the bonfire permit unless the College made substantial changes to the ceremony. The town effectively held the College hostage to its demands — and not all those demands were reasonable. On the fire permit, the town demanded that the fire collapse either before or “as the students complete their one-and-only lap around the bonfire.” The terrifying prospect of the bonfire collapsing as students surround it hardly seems reasonable, especially given the town’s concerns about students touching the fire. Thankfully, Dartmouth pushed back against that stipulation, given the logistical challenges of precisely timing the collapse. Still, by unilaterally setting the terms for the bonfire, Hanover’s elected officials directly targeted the student body.

I’ve yet to meet a student who appreciates the changes. Most begrudgingly accept the gutted shell of a tradition since, as the town has made abundantly clear, any failure to comply with the new rules will result in a permanent ban on the Homecoming bonfire. Hanover town manager Julia Griffin stated her position clearly in a recent interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader: “It’s a tradition,” Griffin asserted, and “it’s become the kind of tradition that should be changed.” No input from students is needed; as she sees it, “it’s really hazing.”

I’ll admit, Dartmouth has a problem with hazing and other coercive behavior — and the College should absolutely oppose it. The bonfire, though, isn’t hazing. It provides a rare experience that draws together students from across campus, welcoming the new class to campus and joining everyone together in celebration. Yes, upperclassmen and alumni sometimes yell at the freshmen to “touch the fire.” It’s an old joke, and it almost never targets specific individuals. As I ran around the fire, I never felt any pressure to touch it. Students understand the danger, and if a few choose to engage in dangerous behavior, they have no one but themselves to blame. The town of Hanover, unfortunately, has ignored the reality of the situation and cracked down on Dartmouth, threatening the College into submission.

Hanover’s paternalistic new regulations directly target students. And remember: all this happens while students still have the right to vote. What happens when we lose that right? Without a vote, we lose our agency as citizens to defend what matters to us. New Hampshire laws clearly impact students, and if this state claims to take democracy seriously, it can’t selectively disenfranchise students. It needs to give every citizen the right to vote.

Hanover’s population stands, as of 2016, at 11,416. Of that, Dartmouth’s student population totaled 6,381. Clearly, students form a major constituency in this town. Disenfranchising half of the town’s residents represents a gross injustice, especially in light of Hanover’s recent actions against student interests. However long students remain in New Hampshire, this state’s laws directly affect us, as Hanover’s takedown of the bonfire illustrates all too clearly. Granted, students tend to vote Democrat, but perhaps, amid this age of partisanship, we can look past petty fights and focus on our common beliefs in democracy, freedom and equal opportunity for all citizens — students included.