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College students flock to see Bernie Sanders, but can they vote for him?

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We're broadcasting live from Bernie Sanders' rally at the University at Buffalo's Alumni Arena. More live updates here: http://politicsnow.buffalonews.com/2016/04/11/long-line-sanders-supporters-ready-tonights-rally/

Posted by The Buffalo News on Monday, April 11, 2016

ALBANY – Bernie Sanders on Monday night appealed to college students to follow the path of younger voters in other states who flocked to his campaign with their energy and, more importantly, their votes.

For a portion of the crowd at the University at Buffalo, though, Sanders’ outreach came too late, thanks to state election laws that critics say do little to encourage his college-age supporters to register to vote.

“New York makes it extremely difficult to vote and register. It has some of the most restrictive laws in the nation,” said Brian Nowak, coordinator of Sanders’ campaign efforts in Western New York.

In Wisconsin, where Sanders won last Tuesday’s Democratic primary, the Vermont senator spent the final few days of the campaign in rallies before thousands of college students. As part of the events, students were still being registered to vote in a state that permits people to register as late as Election Day.

In New York, the deadline for being able to vote in next Tuesday’s primary passed on March 25 – while the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns were still busy working in states with earlier primaries and caucuses.

Those who were enrolled in another party or in no party at all had to switch to being a Democrat by last Oct. 9 if they wanted to choose between Sanders and his challenger, Hillary Clinton.

Supporters of Sanders recognize, and are concerned, that during this last week of the state campaign the senator might be energizing New Yorkers who cannot legally vote.

On the flip side is Clinton, who has been engaging the Democratic Party infrastructure at her disposal – from unions to local political clubs and state lawmakers – to get her supporters to polling places next week.

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For Sanders, it is not an academic problem, especially in New York, where he is trailing Clinton in the polls and for a campaign that has relied heavily on younger voters. One website that tries to help Sanders’ supporters understand their state’s election law requirements – voteforbernie.org – notes that only Democrats who were registered by March 25 can vote next week. “Canvass and phone bank instead!” the website urges, pointing to alternative ways to help besides voting.

Among the sizable walls Sanders is facing in New York is the fact that the state has a closed primary. That means only registered Democrats can vote in the Democratic primary and registered Republicans in the GOP primary. Sanders has been helped in other states that permit voters not enrolled in any party, or even in another party, to vote in Democratic contests.

In New York, there are 2.3 million voters who are listed as “blanks,” or not enrolled in a political party, according to the state Board of Elections. That is nearly as many voters as are registered as Republicans.

Over the years, case law has made it easier for students to register to vote where they go to school, according to Martin Connor, a former state senator and a top election lawyer from Brooklyn. For example, a student from Long Island enrolled at UB could have registered in Erie County, so long as he or she could prove residency in a dorm or apartment 30 days prior to the election in which they intended to vote.

Getting that word out, though, is largely up to the supporters of a particular candidate, as state-funded public relations efforts about that right is not a priority. That means that the UB student from Long Island – assuming he or she met the registration deadlines – would have to request an absentee ballot from their elections board back home. That document then would be mailed to the student, who would have to fill it out and then either personally deliver it to the board back home or mail it there, having it postmarked no later than the day before Election Day and received by local officials no later than seven days after the election.

Such an option, though legal, is hardly realistic in many cases, as parents of college students know.

“It’s a generational thing. We’re used to email. We’re not so used to regular mail,” said Dillon Smith, a UB junior and president of UB Progressives, who helped put together the Sanders rally Monday night. Smith is concerned that students at the UB rally, or other events across the state, would listen and be inspired by Sanders but that it would be too late for some of them to vote in the primary.

“In a large way, I think it feeds into the lack of voter participation, especially among college students, who are studying for exams; they’re away from home and, in order to register, they have to be active on their own and look up the information on their own,” he said of New York’s election laws.

Smith and the local Sanders campaign team were keenly aware of the state’s registration deadlines, and held campus drives to push students to either change their party status last October or to register for the first time before March 25.

Smith said that, in the final week before the March deadline, about 1,300 students registered to vote. He said drive organizers did not check to see which parties the students registered with. A far smaller party-switching enrollment number was seen before that group of voters’ deadline last October, he said.

“I think it’s an advantage for establishment Democrats and establishment Republicans. By not allowing young people to register to vote on the day of an election, in a way, disenfranchises their ideas,” Smith said.

New York election officials recently reported 300,000 new voter registrations since last Nov. 1. However, when registration cancellations are factored in, either from such things as a voter moving or dying, the actual number of registered voters in the state fell slightly during the period.

Efforts to allow same-day voter registration, or early voting in elections, have come and gone in Albany over the years. Reform groups say Democrats and Republicans have little incentive to change a system that works especially well for incumbents.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says 11 states allow voters to register on the same day as an election, with Maine’s law dating back to 1973.

Sanders recently won the Wisconsin primary against Clinton, in part because of his heavy outreach to college-age voters. Wisconsin allows same-day voter registration, a law the Sanders campaign took heavy advantage of in recruiting voters to the senator’s side in the closing weeks of the campaign.

Wisconsin, though, also required voter identification to register, and college IDs did not count. That led some colleges, including the University of Wisconsin at Madison, to issue separate, free ID cards to meet the voter registration requirement.

Sanders’ New York backers are not happy with the state’s election laws.

“In my opinion, it’s ridiculous,” said Nowak, the Sanders Western New York coordinator.

Officially, though, the Sanders campaign is confident it has worked around the state’s registration rules.

“I’d say we’ve already done quite a bit to register new voters. That will be reflected” in the primary results, said Sanders campaign spokesman Karthik Ganapathy.

email: tprecious@buffnews.com

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