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Student Defense files lawsuit over lack of transparency regarding voter registration requirements at colleges and universities

March 14, 2024

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Student Defense files lawsuit over lack of transparency regarding voter registration requirements at colleges and universities

Despite its recently released voter registration toolkit, the Department of Education appears to be failing to track compliance with statutory voter registration requirements. 

Yesterday, Student Defense filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia under the Freedom of Information Act, demanding transparency regarding the Department’s oversight of institutional compliance with a statutory requirement to provide voter registration materials to students. 

Under the Higher Education Act, most institutions of higher education are required to make a “good faith effort to distribute a mail voter registration form” to “each student enrolled in a degree or certificate program and physically in attendance at the institution” and to otherwise “make sure forms widely available to students at the institution.”  

In April 2022, Student Defense submitted a FOIA request to the Department of Education seeking the release of records relating to its oversight of this requirement. The Department has failed to produce any documents, but has informed Student Defense that it does not maintain documents in a way that specifically tracks institutional compliance with this requirement. 

“Congress decided that colleges and universities play an important role in promoting the right to vote and gave the Department oversight authority to ensure that college students have access to the polls,” said Student Defense Vice President and Chief Counsel Dan Zibel. “By better enforcing the HEA’s voter registration provisions, the Department can help guarantee that millions of young voters, including those who have been historically underrepresented in our democracy, are not shut out of the democratic process.”

In February 2024, the Department released a voter registration toolkit with ideas and suggestions for institutions, but that toolkit fails to detail, or even suggest, consequences for institutions that fail to comply with the statutory requirements regarding voter registration.

“The Department’s failure to remind institutions of potential penalties for violating the Campus Voter Registration Requirements is particularly striking, given that the Department has informed [Student Defense] that it does not it does not ‘specifically identify’ or ‘maintain any specific data’ regarding compliance with the [law],” the complaint reads. 

As of the date of this filing, Student Defense’s April 2022 FOIA request remains in “pending” status on the Department’s website for tracking FOIA requests.

Read the full complaint on the Student Defense website.