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Barriers to Student Voting: A Voting Rights Round-Up

At The Andrew Goodman Foundation, we work with Vote Everywhere teams to overcome the barriers to voting on their campuses. In 2016, we saw the power of statewide efforts when our Vote Everywhere team at Louisiana State University helped pass a law that required all four-year, state universities to issue student IDs that qualified as voter IDs. In the aftermath of our legal victory in Florida last year, which secured on-campus early polling sites at 12 campuses where they were previously prohibited, we’re strengthening our focus on challenging statutory barriers at the state and national level. 

I joined the team to help with this effort. I’ll be working with 26th Amendment expert Yael Bromberg to help The AGF support more legal battles for equal voting access. Here are just some of the most common barriers that student voters face around the country:

  • Absentee Ballots

    Nineteen states require an excuse to obtain an absentee ballot. Although attending college qualifies a voter to vote absentee, the requirement to document their excuse may discourage students from pursuing this option. In Michigan and Tennessee, voters who register by mail must vote in person the first time they vote, which is often not possible for students.

  • Gerrymandering

    State legislatures aiming to dilute student votes break campuses into several county or congressional districts. For example, Vote Everywhere partner Montclair State University in New Jersey lies within three different congressional districts.

  • Misinformation

    Students fear the consequences of registering to vote at their campus address, and election officials reinforce these fears. Students report being told they cannot register to vote as residents of their college municipality, or that they will lose financial aid or coverage under their parents’ health insurance if they change their voter registration address. 

  • Polling Places

    Many colleges and universities do not have an on-campus polling site and face resistance when trying to establish one. Since the Shelby County vs. Holder Supreme Court decision in 2013, which stripped away many of the protections of the Voting Rights Act, states have closed 868 polling sites, making it more difficult to reach the polls. This means the nearest polling site may be several miles away from campus and may not be accessible by public transportation, creating difficulty for students without cars and with busy class and work schedules.

  • Residency Requirements

    To establish residency in a state or voting precinct, many states require students to furnish documents like a utility bill or an ID with their current address listed. Students who live on campus do not pay utility bills, and many students’ drivers’ licenses or other forms of identification include their parents’ address, rather than their college address.

    Additionally, most states require a physical address on voter registration forms. Campus mailboxes and the campus’s main address do not qualify, creating another obstacle for student voters. Even if the college provides students with a physical address, students often do not have their address until move-in day, leading to missed deadlines.

  •  Voter ID

    Six states don’t accept student ID as a valid form of voter ID. Another 21 states stipulate that student ID must include certain criteria to qualify as voter IDs, such as an address or expiration date. Many colleges and universities do issue IDs that qualify.

Young voters now make up one of the largest segments of the electorate, and we have seen students across the country become more engaged. But until we address the legal barriers they face, young people cannot fulfill their potential as agents of change.


About the Author

Ryan Spain is the David Rudenstine Postgraduate Public Service Legal Fellow with the Andrew Goodman Foundation. Ryan received his law degree from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. He also received his Master’s Degree from New York University and earned his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Rhode Island.