As college students begin returning to campus, registering to vote may prove far more challenging than registering for classes. For some co-eds, their vote in November's election is in jeopardy in states where newly enacted laws prohibit the use of student IDs at polling sites.
Across the country, restrictive voting laws -- such as requiring a photo ID at the polling place – are sweeping the country. Since 2011, 19 states have enacted 24 restrictive voting laws that civil rights advocates say are more likely to disenfranchise ethnic voters. Among those states, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee have passed laws that either make it harder for students to use school IDs or outright exclude student IDs as an acceptable form of identification at the polls.
In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, "laws were actually drafted in such a way that not a single existing public university or school ID complied with the requirements as set out in the legislation," said Lee Rowland, counsel at the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Speaking to media in a teleconference this week co-hosted by New America Media, Rowland said laws that seek to limit student voting are not only bad policy but interfere with students' Constitutional right to cast a vote in the places they choose to call home.
In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, she said colleges and universities have taken steps to ensure their students will have acceptable IDs in time for the election. Some schools have begun either issuing new IDs or stickers that can be affixed to current IDs that would bring them into compliance with the new laws.
Yet, Rowland pointed out South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee, "explicitly exclude student IDs from the list of acceptable photo identification that is taken at the polling place." She called Texas the most "egregious" offender because its new laws would tend to have a disparate impact on African-American voters.
Photo-ID laws hurt minorities
The Texas law allows the use of a concealed weapons permit as a form of ID to vote but only seven to eight percent of African Americans have one. She explained the gun permit ID provision carries little racial import in isolation but when viewed in conjunction with a student ID law that could potentially affect the state's public university population, of which 17 percent is African American, the intent to provide access for one group of voters while limiting access for another is thinly veiled.
African-American and Hispanic students typically have lower rates of car ownership and would thus be affected in higher numbers than their white peers by the student ID law, because state-issued driver's licenses are the prevailing form of photo ID. The reasons for the gap in rates of car ownership between the groups are due to differences in income levels as well as the geographic reality of population distribution. Urban dwellers often rely more on public transportation than their rural counterparts. Wisconsin's low rate of car ownership among African-Americans and Latinos is another well-documented example of this pattern.
Photo-ID laws are not the only barriers that students may now face. Rowland cited states that have shortened the timeframe during which a student may declare residency. Laws imposing unrealistic bureaucratic burdens and costs on voter registration drives have been particularly burdensome.
Pushback to restrictive voting laws
In some states, members of the public, galvanized by civil rights groups, are pushing back against restrictive voting laws.
In Florida, early voting days have been restored by a panel of judges this month and, in a separate May decision, a federal judge blocked provisions of a law he termed "impractical" due to its onerous fines and reporting requirements for organizations conducting voter registration drives. Rock the Vote, with the League of Women Voters of Florida and the Florida Public Interest Research Group, brought the suit that successfully rescinded those requirements.
Like the Pennsylvania and Wisconsin school systems' initiatives on reissuing student IDs, Rowland of the Brennan Center cited the Florida victories, as well as other citizen-led push backs against restrictive laws as victories in the rapidly shifting landscape of the voter suppression wars.
Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, said one unfortunate aspect of the rash of new laws is that her organization has had to spend time challenging them as opposed to getting about its core mission of registering new voters and educating them about the political process.
Courting the youth vote
To assist young voters to obtain the information they need about voting, Rowland said the Brennan Center has posted its 50-State Student Voting Guide as an on-line resource. Smith said Rock the Vote, at the end of August, plans to launch a massive public education campaign through social media, campus newspapers, billboards and other avenues designed to reach Millennials.
Regardless of the scale of Rock the Vote's outreach, Smith has no illusions about the difficulties of the task ahead. "The Census [Bureau] reported that over six million voters in the last presidential election didn't cast a ballot because they didn't get registered in time," she noted, adding that students often fail to understand that "they have to register in the place where they want to vote."
The laws tightening restrictions on young voters -- shortening the time lines for registering or for reporting a change in residency -- have arisen from Republican legislatures concerned about the youth vote, particularly its burgeoning African-American and Latino segments, that have trended Democratic in recent presidential elections. Smith said "50,000 Latinos are turning 18 each month," and "just over 12,000 kids every single day become eligible to vote."
Still, some analysts predict that the youth vote will be very much in play for several reasons. For one, the Millennial Generation is clearly concerned about their job prospects in a lagging economy, but additionally, young voters and first-time voters are often enthusiastic for change. On the flipside, some are so jaded that they decline to participate in electoral politics. None of those sentiments bode well for incumbents.
Smith didn't speak to political aspects of restrictive laws, but she was critical of those who claim to desire a better democracy, while simultaneously erecting barriers to voting.
"When young people participate at an early age, they're voters for the rest of their lives," Smith said, "and if the strength of a democracy is determined by the participation of its citizens, we should be celebrating and encouraging participation amongst our newest and youngest voters, not making it harder for them to show up."