Efforts to Suppress Student Voting in 2020 Spur Court Challenges

This article was originally published in Nonprofit Quarterly on October 28, 2019.

October 24, 2019; New York Times

Voting may be the superpower of college students. Despite efforts to suppress and limit their right to vote, young people may carry great weight in the upcoming elections—if they can actually vote.

College voter turnout in the 2018 midterms more than doubled that of 2014, according to Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education. Drivers for increased voting include student concerns regarding climate change and gun violence, as well as the Trump presidency. But whatever their motives, college students are now seen as a critical voting bloc in 2020, and one that leans Democratic.

As a result, Republican politicians are looking at ways to create barriers that limit student access to the polls. Those barriers are most evident in states like Texas and Florida, where one-party control is eroding. Failing to demonstrate voter fraud, these states have worked hard to come up with other options to suppress student voting.

The methods used to suppress student voters are varied, and many have found their way into the courts. In New Hampshire, where six in ten college students come from out of state, a Republican-backed law requires newly registered voters who drive to establish “domicile” in the state by obtaining a state driver’s license and auto registration, both of which can cost a lot on an annual basis.

In Florida, in the last electoral cycle, a legislative effort to ban early voting on college campuses was overturned by a federal court, enabling more than 60,000 students to vote early on campus in 2018. Now the legislature is seeking to use parking requirements as a backdoor way to restrict on-campus voting.

In Wisconsin, the legislature has focused on implementing restrictions on the use of student IDs for voting purposes.

But Texas may be the exemplar. For starters, the state’s voter ID law—among the nation’s most onerous, though softened by court rulings—still excludes college and university ID cards and only allows the use of out-of-state driver’s licenses that many students carry if voters sign a form swearing that they couldn’t reasonably acquire an accepted ID and explain why. This may be what contributes to Texas’s ranking last among states in voter turnout.

For years, Austin Community College had set up temporary early-voting sites on nine of its 11 campuses. But this past spring, the Texas legislature outlawed polling places that did not stay open for the entire 12-day early-voting period. So, when the state holds its elections this fall, those nine sites, which counted almost 14,000 ballots from full-time students last year, will not be open. And the same will apply to six campus polling places at colleges in Fort Worth, Brownsville, and others across Texas.

Lawsuits have been filed in most of these states. How quickly they will move, and whether federal judges will favor the students’ rights, remain to be seen. The myth of voter fraud has been dispelled, but clearly the fear of the power young voters has not.

“Everyone 18 years and older has a right, if not a duty, to participate in our electoral system,” said Maxim Thorne, the managing director of the Andrew Goodman Foundation. “We should be having conversations about how to make it easier, how to make it more welcoming, how to make it worthy of our time and effort. And what we’re seeing is the reverse.”