Republicans face setbacks in push to tighten voting laws on college campuses
March 29, 2023 Updated Wed., March 29, 2023 at 9:48 p.m.
FILE -- Super Tuesday voters wait in line outside a polling place on the University of Texas at Austin campus, on March 3, 2020. GOP bills in some states would create obstacles for young people to vote. (Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times) (TAMIR KALIFA)
Alarmed over young people increasingly proving to be a force for Democrats at the ballot box, Republican lawmakers in a number of states have been trying to enact new obstacles to voting for college students.
In Idaho, Republicans used their power monopoly this month to ban student ID cards as a form of voter identification.
But so far this year, the new Idaho law is one of few successes for Republicans targeting young voters.
Attempts to cordon off out-of-state students from voting in their campus towns or to roll back preregistration for teenagers have failed in New Hampshire and Virginia. Even in Texas, where 2019 legislation shuttered early voting sites on many college campuses, a new proposal that would eliminate all college polling places seems to have an uncertain future.
“When these ideas are first floated, people are aghast,” said Chad Dunn, the co-founder and legal director of the UCLA Voting Rights Project. But he cautioned that the lawmakers who sponsor such bills tend to bring them back over and over again.
“Then, six, eight, 10 years later, these terrible ideas become law,” he said.
Turnout in recent cycles has surged for young voters, who were energized by issues like abortion, climate change and the Trump presidency.
They voted in rising numbers during the midterms last year in Kansas and Michigan, which both had referendums about abortion. And college students, who had long paid little attention to elections, emerged as a crucial voting bloc in the 2018 midterms.
But even with such gains, Sean Morales-Doyle, director of the voting rights program for the Brennan Center for Justice, said there was still progress to be made.
“Their turnout is still far outpaced by their older counterparts,” Morales-Doyle said.
Now, with the 2024 presidential campaign underway, the battle over young voters has heightened significance.
Between the 2018 and 2022 elections in Idaho, registration jumped 66% among 18- and 19-year-old voters, the largest increase in the nation, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. The nonpartisan research organization, based at Tufts University, focuses on youth civic engagement.
Out of 17 states that generally require voter ID, Idaho will join Texas and only four others – North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee – that do not accept any student IDs, according to the Voting Rights Lab, a group that tracks legislation.
Arizona and Wisconsin have rigid rules on student IDs that colleges and universities have struggled to meet, though some Wisconsin schools have been successful.
Proponents of such restrictions often say they are needed to prevent voter fraud, even though instances of fraud are rare. Two lawsuits were filed in state and federal court shortly after Idaho’s Republican governor, Brad Little, signed the student ID prohibition into law on March 15.
“The facts aren’t particularly persuasive if you’re just trying to get through all of these voter suppression bills,” Betsy McBride, the president of the League of Women Voters of Idaho, one of the plaintiffs in the state lawsuit, said before the bill’s signing.
A fight over out-of-state students in New Hampshire
In New Hampshire, which has one of the highest percentages in the nation of college students from out of state, GOP lawmakers proposed a bill this year that would have barred voting access for those students, but it died in committee after failing to muster a single vote.
Nearly 59% of students at traditional colleges in New Hampshire came from out of state in 2020, according to the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts.
The University of New Hampshire had opposed the legislation, while students and other critics had raised questions about its constitutionality.
The bill, which would have required students to show their in-state tuition statements when registering to vote, would have even hampered New Hampshire residents attending private schools like Dartmouth College, which doesn’t have an in-state rate, said McKenzie St. Germain, the campaign director for the New Hampshire Campaign for Voting Rights, a nonpartisan voting rights group.
Sandra Panek, one of the sponsors of the bill that died, said she would like to bring it back if she can get bipartisan support. “We want to encourage our young people to vote,” said Panek, who regularly tweets about election conspiracy theories. But, she added, elections should be reflective of “those who reside in the New Hampshire towns and who ultimately bear the consequences of the election results.”
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A Texas ban on campus polling places has made little headway
In Texas, the Republican lawmaker who introduced the bill to eliminate all polling places on college campuses this year, Carrie Isaac, cited safety concerns and worries about political violence.
Voting advocates see a different motive.
“This is just the latest in a long line of attacks on young people’s right to vote in Texas,” said Claudia Yoli Ferla, the executive director of MOVE Texas Action Fund, a nonpartisan group that seeks to empower younger voters.
Isaac has also introduced similar legislation to eliminate polling places at primary and secondary schools. In an interview, she mentioned the May 2022 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers – an attack that was not connected to voting.
“Emotions run very high,” Isaac said. “Poll workers have complained about increased threats to their lives. It’s just not conducive, I believe, to being around children of all ages.”
The legislation has been referred to the House Elections Committee, but has yet to receive a hearing in the Legislature. Voting rights experts have expressed skepticism that the bill – one of dozens related to voting introduced for this session – would advance.
GOP voting restrictions flounder in other states
In Virginia, one Republican failed in her effort to repeal a state law that lets teenagers register to vote starting at age 16 if they will turn 18 in time for a general election. Part of a broader package of proposed election restrictions, the bill had no traction in the GOP-controlled House, where it died this year in committee after no discussion.
And in Wyoming, concerns about making voting harder on older people appear to have inadvertently helped younger voters. A GOP bill that would have banned most college IDs from being used as voter identification was narrowly defeated in the state House because it also would have banned Medicare and Medicaid insurance cards as proof of identity at the polls, a provision that Republican lawmakers worried could be onerous for older people.
“In my mind, all we’re doing is kind of hurting students and old people,” Dan Zwonitzer, a Republican lawmaker who voted against the bill, said during a House debate in February.
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Some barriers are already in place
Georgia has accepted student IDs only from public colleges and universities since 2006, so students at private institutions, including several historically Black colleges and universities, must use another form of identification.
In Ohio, which has for years not accepted student IDs for voting, Republicans in January approved a broader photo ID requirement that also bars students from using university account statements or utility bills for voting purposes, as they had in the past.
The Idaho bill will take effect in January. Scott Herndon and Tina Lambert, the bill’s sponsors in the Senate and the House, did not respond to requests for comment, but Herndon said during a Feb. 24 session that student identification cards had lower vetting standards than those issued by the government.
“It isn’t about voter fraud,” he said. “It’s just making sure that the people who show up to vote are who they say they are.”
Republicans contended that nearly 99% of Idahoans had used their driver’s licenses to vote, but the bill’s opponents pointed out that not all students have driver’s licenses or passports – and that there is a cost associated with both.
Mae Roos, a senior at Borah High School in Boise, testified against the bill at a Feb. 10 hearing.
“When we’re taught from the very beginning, when we first start trying to participate, that voting is an expensive process, an arduous process, a process rife with barriers, we become disillusioned with that great dream of our democracy,” Roos said. “We start to believe that our voices are not valued.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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