Suppressing the Student Vote: How the GOP is Making it Harder for Young People to Cast their Ballots

“Energized by issues like climate change and the Trump presidency,” writes Michael Wines in The New York Times, “students have suddenly emerged as a potentially crucial voting bloc in the 2020 elections.”

Their numbers are definitely growing — millennials and gen Z voters now make up 37% of the electorate according to the Pew Research Center. Only Baby Boomers outnumber them. And their electoral engagement is surging as well. “The average student voting rate at U.S. colleges and universities more than doubled from the last midterm elections, jumping from 19% in 2014 to 40% in 2018,” according to a 2019 report from Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education.

In response, state Republican lawmakers, citing (non-existent) widespread election fraud, have ramped up efforts to suppress and limit students’ right to vote (just as they have suppressed voting rights of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous voters of all ages). Here are just a few examples (all of which have been challenged in the courts):

• TEXAS — The state has a 12-day early-voting period. In 2019, the Texas Legislature outlawed polling places that did not stay open for the entire 12 days, effectively ending the use of temporary and mobile early voting sites common on campuses. As a result, polling places at colleges across the state have been closed.

• NEW HAMPSHIRE — A law that took effect last summer requires newly-registered voters who drive to establish “domicile” in the state by securing New Hampshire driver’s licenses and auto registrations which can cost hundreds of dollars annually. While supporters argue that it won’t impact voting, the confusion surrounding the law is massive especially for college students, 6 out of 10 of whom come from other states.

• WISCONSIN — A voter ID law requires student IDs to include an issuance date, an expiration date of no more than two years from the date of issuance, and a signature in order to be used for voting. Most Wisconsin universities and colleges do not issue IDs that meet these requirements.

• IOWA — Students at Iowa’s public universities would not be allowed to vote early on campus under a wide-ranging election bill advancing in the Iowa Senate. Another one of the bill’s provisions would prevent satellite voting locations from being set up “in any state-owned building.” Critics say this unfairly targets Iowa’s three public universities — the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa — that some 81,500 students attend.

• NORTH CAROLINA — New voter ID requirements, limits on early voting locations and times, and barriers to voter registration have led to widespread confusion on who can vote, where they can vote, and when.

• FLORIDA — After the courts struck down a legislative effort to ban early voting on college campuses, new legislation includes a provision requiring that early-voting sites “must provide sufficient nonpermitted parking to accommodate the anticipated amount of voters.” Many campuses require permits for parking, and some see frequent complaints about parking shortages.

In the face of these roadblocks as well as an increasingly polarized electorate, how can young voters make their voices heard at the ballot box? Fortunately there are massive efforts nationwide to register and mobilize young people, addressing everything from youth not feeling any candidate speaks for them to confusion about the voting process.

Groups like Rock the Vote, Campus Vote Project, the Andrew Goodman Foundation, and Every Vote Counts are just a handful of the many groups working to make it easier for students to know their rights, register to vote, and cast their ballots. There are also numerous state-based organizations who work with young voters and organize against voter suppression.

SpeakOut’s Voice Your Vote 2020 campaign will be leveraging our speakers who visit dozens of campuses each month to amplify the importance of students voting. We’ll also be distributing resources from the Campus Election Engagement Project (CEEP), a national nonpartisan organization that helps colleges engage students in federal, state and local elections. SpeakOut will be sending out CEEP’s nonpartisan, state-specific guides to help students navigate the elections and see where candidates stand.

Past generations have fought and died for the right to vote and it is incumbent on all of us to make sure every person who is eligible to vote, is allowed to vote. That includes young people and students who, as the future of this country, must have a say in its direction.

Writer, Social Justice Activist, Co-Director @ SpeakOut, Works with SURJ Bay Area and BASAT