Voting restrictions target students ahead of US midterms

Growing influence of Democrat-leaning students attracts attention of Republican lawmakers

September 4, 2018
Voting booths
Source: Getty

If students who move to New Hampshire to attend university want to vote there, they soon will have to prove their residency in ways that won’t come cheap.

That’s because of a new law enacted by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature and governor, which voting rights advocates say is among a growing number of attempts to suppress student voting in increasingly divisive US elections.

“That’s exactly what’s going on,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director at the New Hampshire branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the law.

“It’s something that will obviously have a chilling effect,” Mr Bissonnette said of the measure, which, when it takes effect next year, will require out-of-state students who wish to vote to at minimum fill out an application form, assemble other documents, bring them to a state motor vehicle office and pay $50 (£39) for a New Hampshire driving licence. “There is a view [among some politicians] that ‘we don’t like how these college students are voting, so let’s create another barrier’.”

Several states have added voter identification requirements, closed polling stations, changed district boundaries or shortened voting hours in ways that critics say are meant to disenfranchise Americans who might not support the parties in power.

Early targets have been black and Hispanic Americans. Less widely noticed have been the apparent efforts to reduce student voting.

The politicians pushing these restrictions argue that they are trying to prevent voting fraud, which Donald Trump has frequently alleged is a common occurrence, even though there is almost no evidence that any significant election fraud has occurred in the US.

“The amount of burden being put on students who move frequently is nowhere near justified by concerns about election fraud,” said Mike Burns, the national director of the Campus Vote Project.

One predominantly black university campus, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, was split down the middle by Republican legislators into two different congressional districts, diluting the voting impact of its 10,000 students; once represented by a black Democrat, the university is now divided between two white Republicans.

Florida’s Republican secretary of state tried to prevent the convenience of early voting from being made available at universities, a move that was overturned by a judge. And an Arizona legislator has twice pushed to ban out-of-state university students from voting there, telling a local newspaper that they “unfairly influence” elections.

Other ways that students are being discouraged from voting are more subtle, Mr Burns said. Election workers give them incorrect information about their eligibility to vote, for instance, or are deliberately unhelpful.

Maine’s Republican governor was accused of trying to intimidate university students in order to deter them from voting when he said that any students who cast ballots would be “investigated to make sure they follow state law” – even though students enrolled at universities there are legally allowed to vote.

The stakes have risen because university-age voters increasingly support Democrats, and elections coming in November will decide control of Congress. In 2016, voters aged 18 to 29 favoured Democrats over Republicans by a 15-point margin, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

And although their turnout as a group is traditionally very low – in the 2014 midterm elections, only one in five 18- to 29-year-olds voted – young voters have recently been galvanised by issues including gun control and climate change.

“Usually we vote on the progressive side of things,” said Nazario Saint Louis, a student majoring in international relations at Miami Dade College and a member of the board of the Campus Vote Project. “Because of this, mostly, certain people in the states are trying to limit youth voting.”

But there are also forces encouraging student voting, he said. “Especially with certain basic stuff that everybody should agree on, such as climate change, we’re still fighting over it,” Mr Saint Louis said. “Students are asking ourselves, ‘Why isn’t anything being done about these things?’”

Even without active measures to block them from participating in elections, students face challenges to voting, including busy schedules, tight deadlines for registering when they arrive on campus, and rules that vary from one jurisdiction to another.

For their part, Democrats in Congress have proposed legislation requiring universities to appoint campus voting coordinators and to email students to remind them of voter registration deadlines.

“Every state has a different set of laws, a different set of requirements, a different set of deadlines,” said Zaneeta Daver, director of the All In Campus Democracy Challenge, which urges students to vote. “If you’re a student who just turned 18 and wants to vote, it’s a very complicated process.”

But Mr Saint Louis expects more obstacles to come.

“Our vote is growing,” he said. “I’m assuming that a lot of people won’t want for us to have that power. So there will probably be more efforts to try to stop us.”

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Print headline: Restrictions target campus voters ahead of US midterms

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