College students push to ease voting access after midterm barriers
College student on campus. Getty Images.
Story originally published in Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Young voters made their voices heard during the midterms last week, turning out in relatively high numbers in an election that produced the first congressperson from Generation Z. But university students and voting rights advocates say voters on college campuses faced far too many difficulties trying to cast their ballots.
Across the country, voting rights groups and collegiate get-out-the-vote organizers documented many cases of college students who struggled to decipher confusing voter ID requirements, waited in hours-long lines at polling places or never received their absentee ballots. In some cases, college voters were even denied federally protected provisional ballots.
While Election Day generally went smoothly for voters nationwide, these sporadic incidents may have disenfranchised some college students, youth vote advocates say. They want state lawmakers to expand same-day voter registration, better train election staff, encourage college students to serve as poll workers and work with universities to make it easier for college students to vote.
The recent voting challenges speak to systemic problems with ballot access for college students, said Mike Burns, national director of the Campus Vote Project, a Washington, D.C.-based unit of the nonpartisan voting rights organization Fair Elections Center.
“It happens in different places each time, but every election cycle we see these problems crop up,” he said. “We have not designed systems that meet the needs of student voters in the states.”
Republican lawmakers in some states in recent years have implemented policies in the name of election security that make voting even harder for college students — a group that votes mostly for Democrats — including voter ID requirements and restrictions on early and mail-in voting.
Still, there was a lot for young voters to celebrate last week, Burns said. Not only will Generation Z be represented in Congress after 25-year-old Democrat Maxwell Frost won in Florida, but young voters likely were crucial in tipping elections across the country.
According to an exit poll analysis from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, 27% of people aged 18 to 29 voted in this year’s midterm elections — the second-highest youth turnout rate for midterms in the past three decades. In 2018, 31% of young voters turned out.
But fluid, confusing election rules still make it hard for college students to vote, said Caroline Smith, director of programs at the Andrew Goodman Foundation, a New Jersey-based group that supports voting on college campuses.
Over the past several years, especially since the coronavirus pandemic and the fallout of the 2020 presidential election, voting laws have been in flux as state legislatures amend rules for early voting, voting by mail and identification needed to cast a ballot. Election laws are not intuitive, she said.
“To be voting in your first election and to have election laws change in the middle of election cycle, it’s pretty tough to navigate that, even for people who are incredibly plugged in, even for a political science student, let alone for your average student who is navigating quite a lot already,” she said.
Voter ID requirements were especially puzzling for many college students.
College students are highly mobile. They might be registered to vote at their parents’ home in one state and then want to vote on their campus the next year in another state. Once in school, they rarely live in just one residence during their entire college experience, often moving to a new address every year. Still, they have the right to vote as college students living on or near campus.
Thirty-five states require identification to vote, and seven of them do not accept student IDs as proof, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In many states, GOP legislators have opposed same-day registration, citing fears that people might vote in two states or use fake identification to commit voter fraud.
Last year in New Hampshire, a Republican lawmaker proposed a bill that would have explicitly prohibited college students from using their address at an educational institution to register to vote. The bill died in committee.
Republican state Rep. Norman Silber, the bill’s sponsor, told Stateline that current state law creates a special class for college students to register to vote in the state. He wants to eliminate that privilege and ensure that only permanent residents — for example, those with New Hampshire driver’s licenses — can vote.
“People who go to college in New Hampshire, unless they are really bona fide permanent residents … should vote by absentee ballot in their home states,” he said. “It’s a matter of simple equity.”
Silber said Democrats blocked his measure because college students typically vote for them. He added that same-day registration, which New Hampshire offers, is often abused by college students.
Complicated voter ID requirements meant multiple trips to the polling place on Election Day for Reilly Leaver, a master’s student in international business at the University of South Carolina.
Because she registered online to vote during the pandemic in 2020, Leaver never received a state voter ID card that included her picture. When she showed up to vote last week, poll workers turned her away because she lacked proper voter ID; a Maryland native, she did not have a local driver’s license. She instead went back to her home to get her passport. The ordeal took two hours.
“It’s discouraging,” she said. “I was just thinking about all the people who don’t have the time in their day to do all this. I will continue to vote, but it’s still frustrating.”
Elsewhere in the country, some college students in Wisconsin were turned away from polling places, even after trying to use their student IDs to vote or providing proof of enrollment, according to the Campus Vote Project.
The Wisconsin voter ID law, passed by Republicans in 2011, has specific criteria for acceptable identification, including requiring signatures and expiration dates. But not all student IDs include those elements. Some colleges make special student IDs to comply with the law, but confusion remains among some poll workers, the Campus Voting Project claims.
In Ohio, some students had to cast provisional ballots because poll workers wouldn’t accept university-issued utility bills as proof of residency, in violation of state law. Ohio is one of the seven states that refuses to accept any student IDs as voter identification.
Students also faced hours-long lines in several parts of the country, including in Michigan. But delays in that state were the unintended consequence of same-day registration, said Suchitra Webster, the director of student and community relations at Michigan State University.
Though voters approved it by ballot initiative in 2018, this was the first major election where the university fully facilitated same-day registration, since students learned remotely during the 2020 presidential election. With 15,000 students living on campus, the Spartans had five precincts on Election Day.
Though long lines snaked through university buildings, the lines didn’t dissuade students from voting, Webster said.
“The students who were in line were just not what I had imagined,” said Webster, who is also the co-director of MSUvote, a nonpartisan group that works with East Lansing election officials to register students to vote and educate them on the election process. “They were eager to be there. They were like, ‘We’re here, we’re going to do this, we’re going to hang out and wait until it’s my turn to vote.’”
The city clerk established a satellite office in rotating locations around the campus in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Webster said she will work with campus leaders and the clerk to improve the voting process and increase student awareness of earlier registration opportunities.
At the University of Michigan, students faced similarly long lines because of same-day registrations, though students had to wait outside in the November chill. Seeing long lines queuing early in the day, Washtenaw County Commissioner Jason Morgan decided to help the students.
He thought he’d just hand out a couple dozen cups of coffee in the morning. He never expected it would turn into an all-day effort to provide students waiting to vote with coffee, hot chocolate, water, pizza and blankets, often paid for with donations.
By the end of the day, Morgan had to tell his Twitter followers to stop sending food. The last University of Michigan student to vote cast his ballot just after 2 a.m., with some students waiting six hours to vote.
Local election officials need more staff and funding to make sure these waits don’t happen again, Morgan said — an effort he’ll take on when he gets to the Capitol in Lansing in January.
“My enthusiasm for this work is even stronger because I saw firsthand how much students and young people had to go through,” he said.
‘A Lot of Barriers’
In New York, lawmakers this year enacted legislation that requires at least one polling place on college campuses with 300 or more registered voters. California and Maryland have similar laws.
This was essential for students, many of whom don’t have cars to travel across town to vote, said Patrick Mehler, co-founder and president of Cornell Votes, a campus group supporting voting efforts.
Before the law, Cornell students had to commute across two gorges in Ithaca to get to a polling place. Now, they just have to walk to the dining hall.
“It lifted a massive barrier,” said Mehler, a senior industrial and labor relations major. “We’re setting them up to vote for the rest of their lives.”
But the law could go further, said Tim Rainis, a junior international relations student at State University of New York College at Geneseo. Working as a campus team leader with the Andrew Goodman Foundation, Rainis set up a table at his campus polling place to answer student questions.
New York does not offer same-day registration or no-excuse absentee voting. Having those services, along with expanding early voting and making Election Day a holiday, would go a long way to boosting turnout among college students, he said.
“There are still a lot of barriers,” he said.
Indeed, state, election and university officials should make concerted efforts to bolster voting access for college students, said Jennifer Domagal-Goldman, executive director of the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, a national nonpartisan initiative of Civic Nation that serves 9.7 million students on 962 campuses in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., to bolster civic learning and voter participation.
When people start voting young, they’re more likely to continue voting throughout their lives.
“It’s all of our jobs to grow voters and ensure the health and well-being of our democracy,” she said. “When young people aren’t voting, it’s not because they’re apathetic. It’s because it’s hard to do for the first time. Young people care.”
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