College-age voters: increasingly courted – and thwarted

Scott Bauer/AP
NextGen America campus organizer Simone Williams (l.) speaks with Grace Austin, a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, about how to register to vote. NextGen used therapy dogs to attract students and register them to vote.
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At the University of Southern Maine’s Husky Fest activities fair, as a DJ churns out tunes on the lawn, a steady stream of students stop by two tables where activists are encouraging them to register to vote. All it takes: filling out a card. Young people are expected to have a strong impact on this fall’s elections in Maine, which has had one of the nation’s highest rates of youth turnout in recent years. But in neighboring New Hampshire a debate is raging over how student voters define “home.” A law poised to take effect next summer will require anyone claiming their college address as their residence for the purpose of voting to transfer their driver’s license and re-register their vehicle. In battles over voter ID laws, Republicans typically emphasize concerns about fraud, while Democrats tend to focus on the impact tighter rules have on minorities. Increasingly, however, youth voters are joining the list of those who feel targeted. A lot of young people “don’t even know how to start voting,” so seemingly small barriers can add up to lower turnout, says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE, a civic-engagement research center at Tufts University.

Why We Wrote This

Many students are too busy to care much about politics, but those who tune in can make the difference in a tight race – so battles are heating up over whether certain voting rules create unfair barriers.

Dashing out of the rain to grab an iced coffee at the University of New Hampshire, new student Mariah Gonzalez says she plans to vote in the upcoming midterm elections because “it’s going to make a difference.”

The 18-year-old even registered already, by filling out a form in a high school class.

There’s just one hitch. That was in New York State – but Ms. Gonzalez wants to vote in New Hampshire, since being on the basketball team will keep her here pretty much year-round. 

Why We Wrote This

Many students are too busy to care much about politics, but those who tune in can make the difference in a tight race – so battles are heating up over whether certain voting rules create unfair barriers.

In coming weeks, plenty of advocacy groups will be on campus in Durham helping students like her figure out how to vote locally. This is a swing state, after all, and the case can be made to college students like Gonzalez that their vote might be more significant here than in their home state.

Democrats, in particular, tend to benefit when more young people vote. But many are worried that rumors about two new Republican-backed laws related to proof of residency in New Hampshire – one partially on hold during a court case and another poised to take effect next year – might make students just confused enough to skip the whole process. 

“A lot of students we talk to actually think they can’t vote [here] in this coming election,” says Brian Rogers, a 2015 graduate of Keene State and now a New Hampshire campus organizer with NextGen America, which promotes progressive causes.

Since the birth of American democracy, arguments about who is allowed to vote – and how many hoops they should jump through – have constantly played out in legislatures, courthouses, and polling stations. In the battles over voter ID laws in recent years, Republicans have emphasized concerns about voter fraud, while Democrats have focused on the negative impact tighter rules tend to have on minority or low-income voters. Increasingly, youth voters are joining the list of those who feel targeted.

A lot of young people “don’t even know how to start voting,” so seemingly small barriers can add up to lower turnout, says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE, a civic-engagement research center at Tufts University. If they don’t have the right ID or paperwork, “being challenged by someone 50 years older when they show up at the poll can be a really negative experience.”

Young people do appear to be registering in larger numbers this cycle – thanks in part to the Parkland student activists and some prominent primary races – but there’s still a big question as to whether their presence at the polls in November will be a trickle or a tidal wave.

Even so, it’s likely to be a stronger current than in the 2014 midterms, which saw the lowest rates of 18- to 29-year-olds registering (46.7 percent) and voting (19.9 percent) in 40 years of tracking.


CIRCLE analysis of Edison Research Exit Polls, 1992-2016; CIRCLE analysis of the 2016 Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE)

Karen Norris/Staff

Motivating people to vote can require pushing past apathy or disillusionment. “A lot of people ‘do something’ about the issues by complaining,” says Shaman Kirkland, a politically active junior at the University of Southern Maine (USM) in Portland. “[That] negativity makes it hard for the people that are trying to get something done.” 

Of course, until the early 1970s, citizens under 21 weren’t allowed to vote in many states. And some of the disengagement among young people comes simply from the hectic transition to adulthood.

“I haven’t had time to watch the news,” says Shayne Downey an equine student at the University of New Hampshire who recently arrived from Massachusetts and has such a packed schedule that she can’t change out of her riding boots before her next class. “My grandmother’s already pushing me to do it, so I’m going to try to get back home and register.”


Stacy Teicher Khadaroo/The Christian Science Monitor
University of Southern Maine students fill in voter registration cards at the Husky Fest activities fair in Portland, Sept. 6.

But specific policies can make it harder or easier for young people to vote.

Six out of 15 strict voter ID states do not accept college IDs: Arizona, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, according to the Fair Elections Center’s Campus Vote Project.

In Michigan, an in-person appearance in their hometown – either when registering or voting – is required for first-time voters. That often catches students off guard who register by mail and then move away for college. Michigan college Democrats filed a federal lawsuit in August.

It’s easier in states that offer online voting, simple absentee-ballot rules, or automatic registration such as a check box to register when applying for a driver’s license.

High turnout in Maine

Maine allows mail-in and same-day registration. It’s also one of 16 states that lets younger teens pre-register so they are automatically registered when they turn 18.

At USM’s Husky Fest activities fair in early September, all it took for students to register was a few minutes filling in a green card at one of two tables run by liberal advocacy groups. In the first hour, as a live DJ churned out tunes on the lawn, more than a dozen students either registered for the first time or changed their address.

In 2014, Maine had one of the highest rates of youth voter turnout in the nation: 32 percent. This year, it’s among the top 10 states where young people are expected to have a strong impact – including on a competitive governor’s race, CIRCLE reports

But even here, apparent attempts to suppress the student vote have occurred. Shortly before the 2016 presidential election, fliers circulated on several Maine campuses telling students that if they voted locally they would have to pay to re-register their cars, or that it might jeopardize financial aid.

Maddy Smith, who’s staffing the table of Maine Student Action, is taking a year off from Bates College in Lewiston to do political advocacy and encourage students’ involvement.

She hails from Illinois, but Maine “is somewhere where I could see myself staying, and it’s the place where my rights and my ability to move through the world will be most affected,” Ms. Smith says.

In New Hampshire: defining 'home'

Next door in New Hampshire, the debate about new residency requirements is largely driven by partisan politics, but it has surfaced another sort of divide – in how people define “home.”

For this election cycle, students and other mobile people like military personnel can claim their New Hampshire address as their “domicile” for voting purposes without transferring their driver’s license or registering vehicles.

But HB1264, which takes effect next summer, will require all who vote to fulfill those residency requirements. Another law, known as SB3, is embroiled in a court battle because of legal penalties it sets up for voters who fail to document residency properly.

“Someone that … has no roots here, has no intention of staying here, should not be deciding [on] the elected officials that represent that community,” says New Hampshire State Rep. Sherman Packard (R), the primary sponsor of HB1264. “All they have to do is get an absentee ballot from their state. Nobody’s denying them the right to vote.”

Opponents of the recent laws say that attitude is counterproductive in a state with an aging population.

For students and young workers, “home is where they currently are … [but it] could end up being the place where they spend the rest of their lives,” says Liz Wester, New Hampshire director of America Votes, a progressive network. “If the state is not allowing students … to participate in electing their officials, then it’s going to be harder for New Hampshire to keep those students.”

College-town turnout in New Hampshire’s Sept. 11 primary suggests that the fight over these laws may have galvanized more local participation. Statewide turnout was up 38 percent over turnout in 2014, but in college towns, it was up 60 to 130 percent, NextGen reports.

Campuses aim to increase engagement

Wherever students want to vote, just raising their civic engagement is a goal for a growing number of college campuses.

Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., has become a model by training peer counselors to greet every incoming student with information about voting locally or in their hometown – often helping them register on the spot. Nearly half of new students last year were registered when they arrived, but after the welcome sessions, that figure rose to 96 percent. A whopping sixty-four percent of Northwestern students voted in 2016.

Maya Patel, a student at the University of Texas at Austin, works with student groups to train voluntary registrars. “It’s a hustle,” she says, to help peers who want to vote in Texas meet an Oct. 9 registration deadline.

As one of nearly 800 campuses participating in the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, UT Austin saw its voting rate climb to 56.5 percent in 2016, from 41.7 percent in 2012. They now hope to raise their midterm voting rate to 30 percent, from 18 percent in 2014.

Ms. Patel has been motivated by watching her immigrant parents become citizens. “Seeing [my dad] be able to vote for the first time was really powerful to me,” she says. “I just believe that democracy only functions when everyone can have their vote and have their say.”

Her next project: helping to write a bill that would require polling places on the state’s large university campuses.

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