As campaigns head into their final stretches and politicians seek to define themselves, college students have a unique decision to make. Many of us split our time between New Haven and our respective homes, so we can choose to vote in either jurisdiction. We, too, can use this season to define ourselves by selecting which home we care about more deeply.
Apart from a few specific circumstances — for example, living in a swing state — deciding where to vote is not necessarily practical, but rather, a moment of self-definition. The act of registering to vote — and, more importantly, casting a vote — is a declaration of citizenship, a dedication to the jurisdiction of choice: a choice of a home.
Students who vote in Connecticut separate themselves from their original homes, starting somewhere new, ready to invest in New Haven permanently. They proclaim a new era in their lives: They are residents of Connecticut.
If you vote here, yours is a full-fledged citizenship; there is no distinction between you and the lifelong New Haven voter. You bear the same responsibilities as any New Haven citizen. (And, perhaps, you have no special immunities from “Operation Nightlife,” even if it is executed with excessive force.) But if you vote absentee, you remain the person you were before traveling to Yale. In a way, you block off these four years as a temporary state of absence, a holiday from your real, first home.
For me, this choice is deeply political. I am from the District of Columbia; I am not represented in Congress. Like all D.C. residents, I have spent my whole life lamenting my status as a second-class citizen deprived of the most fundamental of American rights.
Since I was 12, I had my plan figured out: I would register to vote in the district on my 18th birthday. I would become a real person, a full citizen, as soon as I possibly could. Then, when I went to college, I would switch my registration so I could vote for senators (two of them!) and a representative in my college’s state. I would be a moron, of course, not to take the opportunity to free myself from my disenfranchised status.
As I became more interested in D.C. politics, I changed my plan slightly. The district is overwhelmingly Democratic — in 2008, President Obama won 93 percent of the vote. Thus, the general election never actually decides anything; the Democrats always win. My vote would be redundant. So, my new plan was to vote in the district’s primary — the election that matters — and then switch and register in my college state’s general election two months later.
Today, step one of that plan is complete. Last month, I cast my absentee ballot in the district, the long-awaited first vote of my life. But I can’t quite bring myself to proceed to step two. Registering to vote in Connecticut doesn’t bother me, but unregistering in the district does.
I may not be there all year, but the district is my home. I interned at the mayor’s office; I’m at Nationals Park practically all summer. D.C. is the city whose history I devour, whose streets I see in my sleep, whose people capture my attention and love at every turn.
There’s a certain onerous pride that comes with being a Washingtonian; we bear a burden no American has borne since 1776. “Taxation without representation,” declare our license plates. Although we won the right to vote in presidential elections in 1961 with the 23rd Amendment and we won home rule in 1973, Congress has not granted us even the one representative we asked for in the D.C. Voting Rights Bill of 2009.
So, for ideological as well as personal reasons, I cannot bail on my city. I can’t switch teams. To declare myself a citizen of Connecticut instead of the district would be dishonest, cowardly and selfish.
Unfortunately, it’s a felony to register to vote in two jurisdictions. And there have been far too many Yalies in New Haven prisons recently. So I’m stuck. I cannot abandon Washington, and I cannot give up the opportunity to be represented in Congress. To do the former would be to renounce my citizenship of my city; the latter, to renounce my country.
If I lived in a state, I would already be a full American citizen, and I wouldn’t need to register in Connecticut in order to declare my citizenship. But as a Washingtonian, without registering in Connecticut, I am only a partial citizen. The laws beg me to break them.
Most American college students can choose where to register far more easily. Equal rights await them in either place, so the decision is merely personal. The ability to choose how to define oneself as a citizen and person should be a liberty granted to all Americans. It is one Washingtonians are forced to live without.