Voter Suppression and College Students

College students in the United States continue to have increased voter turnout numbers, yet they still face unique challenges to voting that other groups generally do not.

Approximately 18 million students attend postsecondary educational institutions in the United States every year. Most college students are 25 years old or younger. There are more college students in the United States than citizens in most states (e.g., New York state has approximately 19 million citizens). College-aged voters, therefore, represent a significant portion of votes in every election.

Capturing the young vote is important for politicians in every election cycle. But among all other age groups, young people have the lowest election turnout rate. Why such a low turnout? According to Campus Vote Project, it boils down to a lack of information rather than a lack of interest in politics.

For many college students, the opportunity to vote for the first time on Election Day is memorable and exciting. But first-time voters living on campus may have questions about their local election, especially those who move away from their home state. Are they eligible to vote in their new state, or must they drive back home on Election Day? Will they be able to vote when they get to the polling station? How do they register? Do they need to register in advance?

This article discusses voter suppression and first-time college-aged voters. Over the years, several states have found significant legal barriers that prevent college students and other young people from voting. Some of these barriers amounted to outright voter suppression. Consider browsing FindLaw's Voting section for more information about voter registration and other voting requirements.

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. Generally, 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 acceptable voter identification to cast a ballot in their state's elections.

For example, some state laws require students to have only one legal address when they register to vote. Such laws make it harder for students who moved to another state for school. Other states require voters to have a driver's license from the state where they cast their ballot. These address and ID requirements make it harder for students to vote, especially if they recently moved to another state for school.

Polling place access has also become a problem in some states. Some states have closed voting sites in low-income areas and in or near colleges. This forces students (who may 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 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 interfering with their right to vote.

The following are a few examples of legal and administrative challenges young people have faced when trying 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, making it easier for the state's almost 600,000 students to vote.

Michigan's voting laws required any potential voter to have only one address. But students may have multiple addresses – 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 houses and change addresses every year or so. So, the “one address" law affected the college-age population particularly.

Michigan also disallowed online voter registration, early voting, and (except in very limited situations) absentee ballots. These methods, if available, would have allowed college student voters to see if they would have a problem voting.

Instead, many young people showed up to the polls only for poll workers to turn them away because their voter registration address (at the college) failed to match their driver's license address (at home).

Student groups from several Michigan colleges and universities filed a lawsuit challenging these laws in 2018. The case settled in 2019, and Michigan instituted several changes to its voting process.

Now, 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 began an educational campaign on campuses to help students understand their voting rights and responsibilities. The state also allows absentee voting.

North Carolina's Battle Over Voter ID Laws

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

The new law said school leaders had to attest that the school took their ID card photos. Other approved photographers included contractors hired by the school or government agencies. The law prevented students from providing their own photos.

Schools also had to confirm students' identity at enrollment by checking their Social Security numbers, citizenship statuses, and birthdays. While some colleges do this, others do not, and some have different means of confirming identity.

North Carolina required over 850 institutions, including schools, colleges, and universities, to submit IDs to the State Board of Elections for approval. Of the 850 institutions, less than 10% submitted timely requests for approval. The law also stated that the institutions that didn't receive approval for their IDs could not file another request for approval until 2021.

Of the 17 University of North Carolina college campuses, 12 did not meet the law's voter ID requirements. This included UNC-Chapel Hill, which had over 30,000 students attending it.

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 containing photos “not taken directly but obtained by qualifying institutions" as long as the photos met their criteria. The legislature also extended the identification card approval deadline.

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.

But the North Carolina Supreme Court revisited the case in 2023. They reversed the appellate court. As of February 2024, North Carolina requires all voters to present identification when voting. Most people can show a driver's license, but others may apply for free state-issued ID.

Wisconsin Voter ID Law

Wisconsin's voter ID law, 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 regular student ID cards from only three of 26 University of Wisconsin campuses met the law's requirements for use in the 2016 election. Only seven of 23 private colleges' regular student IDs met the requirements. That meant many young people could not cast a vote in the 2016 general election.

The University of Wisconsin began to provide special voter ID cards that students could use to vote. But the problem continued for many private colleges. Common Cause provided a list of private college student IDs students could use as valid voter photo IDs in 2018.

New Hampshire Residential Intent Laws

In the 1970s, New Hampshire sought to exclude student voters by disqualifying them from voting in municipal elections. Specifically, it disqualified anyone with a firm intention of leaving town at a predetermined time. Many students intend to leave their college town after graduation. So, the law prevented them from voting.

A federal court struck down the law because it created an unconstitutional rule or presumption. Specifically, the court found that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause by discriminating against college kids.

In 2016, New Hampshire again introduced a voting law that confused students. HB 1264 broadened the definition of a resident such that anyone who registered to vote in the state declared 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 2018 ruling that the bill was constitutional. In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal lawsuit alleging that forcing voters to get a new driver's license and registration could add up to hundreds of dollars. They argued that the law effectively created an unconstitutional poll tax. The ACLU ultimately withdrew its lawsuit in 2020.

Iowa and Student Polling Places

In 2019, the Iowa senate introduced SF 575, which would have prevented satellite voting locations in “state-owned buildings," like the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa campuses. These public universities are home to thousands of resident and non-resident students who previously used polling stations at their schools. The bill died in committee in 2019.

Since then, Iowa passed a law shortening the time in which counties may send absentee ballots to registered voters. In March of 2021, Governor Kim Reynolds signed SF 413 into law. Under the law, county auditors can only send absentee ballots up to 20 days before an election. Before the law's enactment, such auditors could send absentee ballots out 29 days before an election.

Florida Universities and Parking Requirements

SB 7066, Florida's new voting law, included a clause regarding the responsibilities of polling locations and election supervisors. It requires "sufficient nonpermitted parking to accommodate the anticipated number 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. But many college campuses don't have enough parking to comply with the new law. Many student voters also live on campus or don't own cars.

Currently, Florida allows college campuses to host polling places and early voting sites. A settlement in 2020 loosened the parking restrictions. State officials clarified that the law requires polling places to have “adequate" parking for those who commute by car. But the language doesn't mean that a polling place must have a “certain number of nonpermitted parking sites available."

Brennan Center for Justice Policy Brief on Student Voting

In 2006, the Brennan Center for Justice issued a policy brief that examined the problem of low voter turnout among young voters aged 18 to 21. By 2000, voter turnout among young people had dropped 13% from 1971, when the government lowered the voting age to 18.

After reviewing the problem, they found more nuance than simply disengaged young voters. In fact, they found that many young people wanted to vote. The Brennan Center noted that legal or administrative barriers prevented them from voting.

You May Also Like

The following links provide more information about voting rights.

For more information, browse FindLaw's Voting Rights section.

Contact an Attorney for Legal Help

Contact a civil rights attorney if you believe the government has suppressed your right to vote. An experienced attorney can provide information about your specific case and how to remedy a constitutional violation. Contact an attorney near you for help with your legal dispute.

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