Students at Binghamton University constitute about 9 percent of Broome County’s population, so when they vote and participate in the U.S. Census, they secure their representation in local, state and national politics — but in the wake of the coronavirus (COVID-19), it’s unclear how many will remain to do so.
As COVID-19 fears grip the country, all classes at BU have been moved online and many students have decided to return home for the remainder of the semester, a situation which could lower the student response rate in the upcoming decennial census set for April 1 and voter turnout in primary elections on April 28.
Prior to the announcement of the University’s transition to online classes, the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) had advised students to fill out their census reports based on where they are living on the day of the census. But as the situation across the nation becomes more complex, the U.S. Census Bureau released a statement on March 15 saying students should report their census based on where they reside most of the year.
“Even if [students] are home on Census Day, April 1, they should be counted according to the residence criteria which states they should be counted where they live and sleep most of the time,” the statement read.
To simplify the census-taking process, BU already submitted the required data for students living on campus. However, for students who live off campus and must submit their census data independently, COVID-19 may present barriers to representation. Alison Handy Twang, associate director of the CCE, said confusion about filling out census data may lead to low student response rates, which could prevent students from being properly counted.
“A strong census response is critical to fair political representation and access to billions of dollars in federal funding,” Twang wrote in an email. “College students are already an undercounted population, and a low response rate now will have negative repercussions for our community for the next 10 years.”
COVID-19 could also lead to on-campus students being double-counted as they head home. Although the U.S. Census Bureau has systems in place aimed at preventing double-counting, the CCE said the best way to avoid issues is to just stick to census guidelines.
For off-campus students, Twang said the CCE will continue to stress that those who leave the area before receiving their online census response code via mail can follow specific instructions for filling out the census independently. Despite the confusion, some students said they are still excited to fill out the census and engage in civic duty, such as Luke McNamara, a sophomore majoring in history.
“It’s important for everyone to participate in the census because it is how our congressional districts are made up,” McNamara said. “In a fair democracy, we have to make sure everyone has an equal vote.”
The pandemic may also prevent BU students who are registered to vote in Broome County from participating in the upcoming primary elections due to a change in address.
Those registered to vote in Broome County can request absentee ballots if they will not be in the area on the date of the election. An absentee ballot request must be printed, signed and mailed by April 21. Once the ballot is received, it must be mailed by April 27.
Individuals can also change their voting address if the request is submitted or mailed by April 8. For new voters, the deadline to register an address is April 3.
More information on how to fill out absentee ballots and other voting information can be found on websites such as Vote.org and the CCE’s Voter Engagement and Political Action page.