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Photo-ID Laws Pose Hurdle for College Voters

New America Media | 8/31/2012, 11:01 a.m.

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.