Last Tuesday, the undergraduate candidates for the New Hampshire House of Representatives, Miles Brown ’23 and Nicolás Macri ’24, finished fifth and sixth, respectively, in the Democratic primary — several hundred votes away from securing a spot in the general election. Last July, the current Student Government president, David Millman ’23, lost a race for Hanover selectboard by around 300 votes. The most recent student candidate to win a local election was Garrett Muscatel ’20, who ran unopposed in the 2018 Democratic primary for state house.
Dartmouth students make up a strong plurality of all Hanover residents — and yet have consistently struggled to gain political representation in local and state governments. Yes, not all students are registered to vote here. And yes, young people across the country tend to turn out at the polls at lower rates. But what these failures in representation demonstrate is that more must be done to facilitate student voting — and we should start by opening a polling location on campus.
Hanover, despite its large geographic extent and population nearing 12,000, has only one polling location. This location, Hanover High School, has some benefits: It’s about a 15-20 minute walk from Baker-Berry Library, has available parking and has plenty of capacity (read: short lines, even in high-turnout races). Compared to some states and localities, which see hour long-lines on election day, voting is relatively accessible.
Yet in a progressive town like Hanover, we should not just meet the bare minimum; instead, we should strive to go above and beyond to make voting easy for everyone. The need for accessibility is that much greater when a large portion of the electorate is comprised of busy students who are already racing between classes and club meetings. When a voting system isn’t designed to address student needs, it shouldn’t be a surprise when there’s low student turnout. A polling place on campus — I suggest somewhere in Baker-Berry Library — would be a great way to address the lack of accessibility.
Hanover’s singular voting location is rather unusual for a community of its size. For instance, in Michigan, a precinct cannot contain more than 2,999 active registered voters; Hanover has about 8,500 registered voters. In my hometown of Newton, Massachusetts, there are 29 voting locations for 88,000 people — Hanover has one for 11,000. Our neighboring community of Lebanon, despite having only about a 20% larger population, has 3 polling places. For a town of our size, having just one place to vote is not enough to ensure that voting is accessible for everyone, no matter how much capacity that one location has.
A closer polling location would obviously benefit students by being more convenient. Hanover’s current location is close but is still a 30+ minute round trip from campus, and it may be completely out of the way for students. With a polling place on campus, voting could easily be accomplished between activities. The precinct would also be a powerful spur to electoral participation, a direct, unavoidable reminder of an election. So many students pass through the library and other high-use campus spaces that contact with the polling place would almost be automatic, rather than an opt-in. What’s more, it would also make voting more convenient for professors and other staff who may call Hanover home.
Political scientists have already studied the impact of polling places on turnout, and unsurprisingly, fewer voting locations lead to reduced turnout. In contrast, more-visible polling locations have been shown to increase voter turnout.
Thus, a new polling place could especially facilitate voting in lower profile, less notable races. While student turnout may not be as much of an issue in presidential or midterm elections, Hanover sees a strong drop-off in local races. The last presidential primary in 2020 saw 6,000 voters and 1,000 new voters registered, largely students. Yet our most recent Town Meeting had 1,700 voters total, even when there was a Dartmouth student running for selectboard. Still, local races have some of the most direct impacts on student life. In this year’s Town Meeting, Hanover voted on whether to approve the Main Wheelock District and other housing-related ballot questions. Despite their importance, local elections are admittedly harder to tune into than national races — and that’s precisely why voting should be made as easy as possible.
Still, on its own, the addition of a new polling place would not automatically grant students more representation in government. We would still need to organize around candidates, ballot initiatives and other measures of student interest. A new polling place also wouldn’t address many of the barriers the state of New Hampshire puts on voting — we lack both early voting and “no-excuse” absentee voting. But it certainly would be a lot easier to mobilize students if we could vote right on campus.
Although it may be too late for the upcoming midterms, a new polling place would be a worthy and worthwhile change for Hanover. In New Hampshire, the breakdown of precincts occurs town by town — and many other communities already have more than one voting location. Access alone cannot solve low participation or guarantee successful causes and student candidates. But if we want more students to vote, the solution can start with simply making it closer.