Could tougher voting laws squelch the youth vote?
CHICAGO — Gone are the days when young voters weren’t taken seriously. In 2008, they helped propel Barack Obama into the Oval Office, supporting him by a 2-1 ratio.
But that higher profile also has landed them in the middle of the debate over some state laws that regulate voter registration and how people identify themselves at the polls.
Since the last election, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Wisconsin, Texas and other states have tried to limit or ban the use of student IDs as voter identification. In Florida, lawmakers tried to limit “third party” organizations, including student groups, from registering new voters.
Proponents of voter ID and registration laws say the laws are intended to combat voter fraud. The intent, they say, is to make sure people who are voting are who they say they are and have the right to vote.
“In this day and age, nothing could be more rational than requiring a photo ID when voters come to the polls,” Pennsylvania’s senior deputy attorney general, Patrick Cawley, said recently when defending the state’s new law in court.
Others see these efforts as attempts to squelch the aspirations of the budding young voting bloc and other groups, and they are using that claim to try to get more young people fired up.
“You think your vote doesn’t matter? Then why are they trying so hard to take it away from you?” said Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, a group that works to register young voters. “It does demonstrate the power they have.”
Smith noted that it’s not just an issue for college students.
She was teaching a civics class for graduating seniors at an inner-city high school in Philadelphia this spring and asked how many among them had driver’s licenses that could be used, if the Pennsylvania law requiring a photo ID to vote were to survive the legal challenge.
“They looked at me like I had two heads,” she said. Only two students in the room of 200 raised a hand; few of the students had cars.
These are the sort of stories that have led some students to get involved, particularly on college campuses.
In Florida, Rock The Vote joined with the League of Women Voters to challenge restrictions on “third party” voter registration. A federal judge said last spring that many of the restrictions made it too difficult for legitimate voter registration organizations to do their work.
Now, while most college campuses are relatively quiet, some of those students have taken it upon themselves to register their peers during freshman orientation this summer.
“We feel like it’s up to us,” said Anna Eskamani, a 22-year-old graduate student and a leader at the Florida school.
In Pennsylvania, when lawmakers were proposing the voter ID law there, 22-year-old Adam Boyer was among students who asked them to reconsider an outright ban on the use of student IDs.
“I’d like to think that the proponents of this law weren’t trying to disenfranchise certain demographics. I hope it was an oversight on their part, and I think that was the case,” said Boyer, a recent graduate of Penn State who plans to attend law school at Villanova this fall.
Pennsylvania lawmakers decided to allow “valid” student IDs, meaning they had to have expiration dates. But most colleges and universities in Pennsylvania didn’t have such dates on their IDs.
So students and other groups that advocate for them have been working with universities in Pennsylvania and states such as Wisconsin to add them. A state judge struck down Wisconsin’s voter ID law; that ruling is being appealed.
New IDs at institutions such as Penn State, for instance, now have expiration dates. Returning students also can get an expiration sticker to put on their IDs, a common plan at schools that are addressing the ID issue.
Joel Weidner, a Penn State University official who helps oversee ID policy, said the school is most concerned about out-of-state students who might rely on a student ID to vote if they don’t have a Pennsylvania driver’s license.
Of the 80,000 Penn State students on campuses statewide, he estimated that about 10,000 are from other states.
Voter ID and registration aren’t the only voting issues on campuses.
Long lines and a lack of polling places have been problems for students in past elections, particularly in 2008.
So some universities are trying to get polling places on campus. Arizona State is among those that recently approached election officials and got one.
Confusion at polls
All the rules, and the differences in them state-to-state and even county-to-county, can create a lot of confusion for young voters, some of whom are voting for the first time.
In Wisconsin, during a gubernatorial recall election in June, the League of Women Voters received 200 calls from students who said voting requirements caused confusion at the polls. Many, the league said, left without voting.
The confusion in that instance was over a requirement that Wisconsin voters live in a precinct for 28 days to be eligible to vote there. That’s a tricky requirement for students, who are often mobile in the summer months.
Last year in Maine, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union criticized Secretary of State Charlie Summers after he sent letters to out-of state students at four universities telling them they needed to register their vehicles in Maine and get driver’s licenses there if they wanted to continue voting in the state.
Some saw the move as voter intimidation and a violation of the Voting Rights Act, particularly because Summers found no evidence of voter fraud in an investigation that prompted the letters.
The U.S. Supreme Court has sided with students on this issue and their ability to vote where they attend school, even when they’ve come from another state.