Voter Suppression and College Students

For many college students, the opportunity to vote for the first time is memorable and exciting. But for students who live on campus, and especially those who previously lived in another state, it can also be stressful. Are they eligible to vote in the state where they now reside nine months of the year? Will they be able to vote when they get to the polling station? How do they register? Do they need to register in advance?

Several states have found significant legal barriers that prevented college students and other young people from voting. Some of these barriers amounted to outright voter suppression.

The First Amendment protects the right to vote. The Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause ensures that student voters enjoy the same right to vote as other adults. Students have successfully challenged laws that interfere with their right to vote.

Voter Suppression Barriers Experienced by Student Voters

A spate of strict state voter ID laws enacted over the past decade has made it harder for many young people to vote. Republicans argue that voter ID prevents voter fraud; those who vote democratic believe that voter ID laws represent intentional voter suppression.

Regardless of the motive behind such laws, according to the 2012 American National Elections Study, 15% of 17- to 20-year-olds and 11% of 21- to 24-year-olds did not have the kind of ID that would be acceptable for voter identification in their state.

Address/ID requirements tripped up students in some states as states required students to have only one legal address or to have a driver's license with the state of the school.

Polling place access has also become a problem as some states close voting sites in low-income areas and in or near colleges, forcing students (who often do not have cars) to travel long distances and wait in long lines to vote at the ballot box.

Examples of Student Voting Barriers by State

The following are a few examples of legal and administrative challenges faced by young people as they try to exercise their right to vote.

Michigan Student Voters Win Voter ID Case

In 2019, would-be student voters won concessions from the State of Michigan that will make it easier for the state's almost 600,000 students to vote.

Michigan has strict voting laws that require a potential voter to have only one address. Students may have more than one address – a school address and a parent's home address, for example. Furthermore, students tend to be a mobile population. They may move from dorms to apartments or dorms to dorms, so the “one address" law hit this population particularly hard.

Michigan also disallowed online voter registration, early voting, and (except in very limited situations) absentee ballots, all of which would have allowed college student voters to identify if they were going to have a problem voting.

Instead, young people would show up at the polls and be turned away because their voter registration address (at the college) did not match their driver's license address (at home).

Thanks to a lawsuit, if a student registers to vote with the secretary of state using their temporary college address, it will automatically trigger a change of address on their driver's license. Michigan is also doing an educational campaign on campuses to help students understand that they can vote without having already changed their driver's license records.

North Carolina Voter ID Law Changed to Clarify What Student IDs Are Acceptable

In 2018, the General Assembly of North Carolina approved Senate Bill 824, which designated what type of ID was acceptable for voting. The security criteria applied to IDs meant that most student IDs would no longer be acceptable forms of identification.

Schools, colleges, and universities were required to submit a request to the State Board of Elections to have their ID cards approved for use as valid IDs. More than 70 institutions had their cards approved, but many more did not submit a request or had their ID cards rejected.

Some institutions believed that they could not meet the statutory requirements, which imposed a significant burden on the schools.

The new law said that school leaders had to attest that the ID card photos were taken by the school, by a contractor hired by the school, or by a government agency. If that was not the case, they could be charged with perjury. Students were prevented from providing their own photos. If the student were using their passport for identification, that photo would have been provided by the student, not an approved source.

Schools also had to confirm a student's identity at the time of enrollment by checking their Social Security number, citizenship status, and birthday. While some colleges do this, some do not, and some have different means of confirming identity.

The result was that many students were turned away from the polls by election officials. And those schools whose identification cards were rejected were told they could not reapply for approval until 2021.

In March 2019, North Carolina lawmakers passed legislation delaying the start of the photo ID requirement until the 2020 election. In May 2019, lawmakers voted to allow ID cards that contained photos “not taken directly but obtained by qualifying institutions" as long as the photos met their criteria. Furthermore, the deadline for identification card approval was moved back six months.

In February 2020, the North Carolina Court of Appeals blocked the voter ID law from taking effect. In September 2021, a three-judge panel concluded that the voter ID law violated the North Carolina Constitution.

Wisconsin Voter ID Law

Wisconsin's voter ID law, which passed in 2012, allowed student IDs as an acceptable form of identification for voting, but the IDs had to have signatures and a two-year expiration date.

The result was that student ID cards from only three of 26 University of Wisconsin campuses and seven of 23 private colleges were acceptable for use as IDs in the 2016 election. That meant many young people were turned away at the polls.

The University of Wisconsin began to provide special voter ID cards that could be used, along with proof of enrollment, to allow students to vote. The problem continued for many private colleges. Common Cause provided a list of private college student IDs that could be used as valid voter photo IDs in 2018.

New Hampshire Residential Intent Laws

In the 1970s, New Hampshire sought to exclude student voters by disqualifying anyone from voting in municipal elections if they had a “firm intention" of leaving that town at a predetermined time in the future. Many students intend to leave their college town after graduation; therefore they were excluded.

That law was struck down by a federal court because it created an unconstitutional rule or presumption. Some courts allowed states to take further action to determine residence, but they could not seek irrelevant information or create rules that presumed lack of residence at the college.

In 2016, New Hampshire again introduced a voting law that caused confusion among students. HB 1264 broadened the definition of a resident in such a way that anyone who registered to vote in the state was declaring residency. As a resident, the person now had 60 days to get a New Hampshire driver's license, or they could face penalties. The New Hampshire Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion in which they ruled that the bill was constitutional.

In February 2019, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that forcing voters to get a new driver's license and registration could add up to hundreds of dollars and that this amounted to instituting a poll tax. The case is ongoing.

Iowa and Student Polling Places

In 2019, the Iowa senate introduced SF 575, which would prevent satellite voting locations in “state-owned buildings," like the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa campuses. These state-operated universities are home to thousands of Iowa students who previously used polling stations located at their universities for voting. The new law would not impact students attending private schools of higher education.

The bill was introduced in 2019, but it died in committee.

Florida Universities and Parking Requirements

SB 7066, Florida's new voting law, included a new clause regarding the responsibilities of polling locations and election supervisors. It requires that there be "sufficient non-permitted parking to accommodate the anticipated amount of voters" at early voting polling locations.

Florida's college campuses provided early polling access for almost 60,000 voters in the last national election. However, on many college campuses, that kind of parking is unavailable and many student voters live on campus or do not own cars.

Will Florida universities choose to continue providing early polling locations to make it easier for their students to vote? That remains to be seen.

Brennan Center for Justice Policy Brief on Student Voting

In 2006, the Brennan Center for Justice issued a policy brief that looked at the problem of low voter turnout among young voters, aged 18 to 21. Already by the year 2000, voter turnout among young people had dropped 13 percent from 1972 when the voting age was lowered.

In reviewing the problem, they found that the picture was more nuanced than simply disengaged young voters. They found that a great number of young people who wanted to vote were prevented from doing so because of legal or administrative barriers.

Those conditions continue today. Indeed, the challenges may be increasing and coming from new directions. If you are concerned about legal barriers or the voting rights of young people and are looking for legal resources, talk to a civil rights lawyer in your community.

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