Voting restrictions on college students: the quiet disenfranchisement

This column was originally published on October 1st, 2015 in The Crimson White and on

For many people, college is a time of personal growth, self-discovery and the actualization of their role as a citizen. It is a perfect time for students to discover what is important to them, how they think the world should work and what the best way for them to impact their surroundings is. As my column last week highlighted, most college-aged Americans don’t take advantage of the opportunity they have to affect things. The reasons for this ranges from low political efficacy to genuine lack of interest, but unfortunately, the lack of participation isn’t the only thing preventing young Americans from having a say.

For a few years now, the voting rights of college students have been quietly whittled away. Since 2010, many states have passed laws restricting voting rights, and the publicity associated with these laws has largely pointed out the racial implications they have. While allegations of the racial discrimination posed by these new laws are serious and important, the effects the laws have had on college students’ voting rights ought to be discussed as well.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that out-of-state students are entitled to vote in the state of their respective colleges, and instead of laying out the welcome mat, many states seem to be trying to make it harder for them to actually do so. For example, the controversial North Carolina voter ID law – passed after Barack Obama carried the state in 2008, despite losing every single age group except 18-25 – disenfranchises students by deeming student IDs unacceptable identification. The law also eliminates high school voter registration.

The North Carolina law is one example of the subtle, but effective tactics that are being used to quiet the voices of young Americans. Texas allows handgun licenses to qualify as voter ID but not a Texas student ID. The Maine secretary of state sent letters to hundreds of resident students informing them they were being investigated for fraud because their cars weren’t registered in Maine. No evidence was found.

It is possible for students to get state-issued identification cards, but there is almost no reason to take the time, pay the money or even know that it’s necessary to do so other than to vote. Evidence of widespread voter fraud is non-existent in the United States, so to claim that denying student identification is for the purpose of anything but disenfranchising young voters is disingenuous.

Closer to home, the Alabama Supreme Court recently overturned the dismissal of Kelly Horwitz’s 2013 school board election case. On the one hand, I was excited that Horwitz would get a second chance at winning the board member seat The Machine contrived to deprive her of. On the other hand, I was unnerved that the Alabama Supreme Court didn’t rule against The Machine’s tactics. They ruled against the right of students to vote in this, or any college town in Alabama, at all. They ruled that college students must physically (and somehow mentally) abandon all prior domiciles and establish intent to remain permanently in their college town.

This decision calls into question the legitimacy of student voting by setting a higher standard of residency for students than any other group. Young professionals in their first stepping-stone job? You can register, even if you only intend to reside there for two years. College students with military parents who move bases while you’re still in school? You’re in legal limbo, with no prior residence to register, and according to the Alabama Supreme Court, no “intent to remain permanently” in your current residence. This is a precedent that should never be set in our state or anywhere else. The alleged election fixing by UA students is a serious issue, but it is not the one the Alabama Supreme Court addressed, and I worry its ruling will make it easier for legal challenges to arise in response to student votes all over Alabama. College Dems, College Republicans and our SGA should consider following Samford’s lead and converting their voter registration drives to absentee ballot request drives.

As young people, it is important that we learn to care about the things that are happening, how they affect us, and how we can change them to make things better. The other side of the problem, though, is the way that opportunity is being taken away from our peers. As I’ve said before, voting is key to our democratic society, and without it, what do we really have?



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