Block the Vote

March 9, 2011

Well, New Hampshire’s state House speaker was certainly right when he said college students have feelings.

Students there and elsewhere are protesting and testifying against bills emerging in several states aimed at limiting their ability to vote in their respective college towns, or in some cases, at all. William O'Brien earned special enmity by saying -- in a speech to a group of Tea Party supporters about the most controversial legislation -- that the students are "foolish" and "just vote their feelings."

The legislation has inspired Dartmouth College students from all political parties to form a united front, rallying and testifying against the bill O'Brien spoke about, which would prohibit them from establishing residency in Hanover (or their respective college towns) while in school, allowing them to vote only if they or their parents had established permanent residency there. Another bill would eliminate Election Day registration, a procedure that is known to produce higher turnout of young voters. In Wisconsin, a bill would require voter identification in the form of a state driver's license, passport or military ID.

Supporters of such legislation say it will help curb voter fraud, particularly in states that currently require no proof of identity to vote, and give long-term residents the voting weight they deserve. The Republicans in the New Hampshire House currently possess a veto-proof majority, meaning some form of the legislation will probably pass. And states from Minnesota to Colorado to Oregon -- as many as 32 in all -- could pass legislation that would implement voter identification requirements; the specific standards of current and future laws vary by state.

“It’s just hard for us to say, as students, we will sit back and accept that, because to sit and accept that would actually be foolish,” Richard Sunderland, president of the Dartmouth College Republicans, said in reference to O’Brien’s comments. “We have members who are taking government classes at Dartmouth who are part of the College Republicans or the College Democrats, who are volunteering on campaigns -- I would challenge anyone to find a regular person who is more involved than that. It’s rather shortsighted to say students aren’t smart enough to vote.”

It’s not the first time that waves of political turnover have resulted in broad efforts to limit the student vote. Lee Rowland, Democracy Counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, which has a special focus on student voting, said flurries of similar legislation were also introduced in the 1970s and ’80s.

Some students assert that newly empowered Republican lawmakers wouldn't be so quick to try to rein in the student vote -- and to question students' intelligence -- if the votes swung the other way. In the 2010 midterm elections, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, voters ages 18 to 29 voted for Democratic House candidates over Republican House candidates by a margin of 55 percent to 42 percent.

“Clearly there are some Republican legislators in these states that I do think have partisan motivation here,” said Rod Snyder, president of Young Democrats of America. But, he noted, “I think it has the potential to depress youth voter turnout in general. Regardless of which way young people are voting, these types of tactics are going to make it harder…. The bottom line is, we just want to make sure they have the opportunity to vote, regardless of what they decide.”

In Wisconsin, students are lobbying against a bill that would require every voter to have a state identification or driver’s license, a passport or military ID. Student IDs are not among the acceptable items of proof, meaning that many young would-be voters are out of luck.

And while groups like the College Democrats, the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group and the student chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union are organizing against the bill, Wisconsin students have not enjoyed the same bipartisanship that is apparent in New Hampshire -- probably because New Hampshire's bills more explicitly target college students.

In Wisconsin, on the other hand, lawmakers are able to build support for the bills by marketing them “disguised” as barriers to voter fraud, said Sam Polstein, chair of legislative affairs for the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s student government. He asserted that voter fraud is not a significant problem in the state, and said he believes that the tension surrounding the state’s high-profile collective bargaining negotiations has contributed to a stark bipartisanship on campus, where most left-leaning students have vocally supported the unions at the state Capitol.

“There is a certain amount of nonpartisan getting together and really pushing this on behalf of students, but at the same time, just the current climate in Wisconsin – it’s kind of hard to get by it,” Polstein said. But while some students favor the bill as a whole, he said, most – including the chairman of the College Republicans – want student IDs to be added to the bill as an acceptable form of voter identification.

Faced with a student body that is largely unaware of the pending legislation, a coalition of the aforementioned Wisconsin groups and others are making voter education their number-one priority. Their methods thus far have included handing out fliers on campus, creating Facebook pages and making presentations to other student organizations. “I’d say right now, most people probably don’t know exactly what the bill does,” Polstein said. “But those who do for the most part are worried about the impact of the bill and the impact it’s going to have on student turnout.”

But, as states with variations of voter ID laws have found out firsthand, even if the bills pass in both states, they will almost certainly face legal challenges, Rowland said. The Brennan Center testified against the New Hampshire House’s proposed legislation, saying that by singling out college students and military personnel (who under the law would face the same restrictions), the bill violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.

While voter ID laws always come along with challenges -- including the millions of dollars it would cost states to set up and enforce the restrictions -- New Hampshire would become the outlier if it passes its bills, Rowland said. (Such challenges are sometimes overcome; just this week, for instance, Georgia’s supreme court upheld a law requiring that voters show photo ID.)

“This is the type of bill that has been attempted before but, fortunately, was repeatedly struck down by federal and state courts,” she said. “This bill would put New Hampshire on the map as an extreme state in terms of limiting voting rights, and passage of this bill is likely to draw a Constitutional lawsuit. Both outcomes are bad for the state and New Hampshire taxpayers.”

In 2008, New Hampshire and Wisconsin were among the states with the highest youth-voter turnout, beating the national average of 51 percent by 10 percentage points, in the former’s case (both states permit Election Day registration). If this legislation passes, those states might be edged out in 2012. “Students who are in fact less political or less engaged may not fully understand the implications until next year, when they show up to the polls and try to vote,” Snyder said. “Let’s be honest. We historically have had a hard time motivating young voters…. We don’t want to take a step back when it comes to youth participation in the voting process.”

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