AUSTIN, Texas – At Austin Community College, civics is an unwritten part of the curriculum — so much so that for years the school has tapped its own money to set up temporary early-voting sites on nine of its 11 campuses.
No more. This spring, the Texas Legislature outlawed polling places that do not stay open for the entire 12-day early-voting period. When the state’s elections take place in three weeks, those nine sites — which logged many of the nearly 14,000 ballots that full-time students cast last year — will be shuttered. So will six campus polling places at colleges in Fort Worth, two in Brownsville, on the Mexico border, and other polling places at schools statewide.
After decades of treating elections as an afterthought, college students have begun voting in force. Their turnout in the 2018 midterms — 40.3% of 10 million students tracked by Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education — was more than double the rate in the 2014 midterms, easily exceeding an already robust increase in national turnout. Energized by issues like climate change and the Trump presidency, students have suddenly emerged as a potentially crucial voting bloc in the 2020 election.
And almost as suddenly, Republican politicians around the country are throwing up roadblocks between students and voting booths.
Not coincidentally, the barriers are rising fastest in battleground states and places like Texas where one-party control is eroding. Students lean strongly Democratic: In a March poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, 45% of college students aged 18-24 identified as Democrats, compared to 29% who called themselves independents and 24% Republicans.
Some states have wrestled with voting eligibility for out-of-state students in the past. And the politicians enacting the roadblocks often say they are raising barriers to election fraud, not ballots.
“The threat to election integrity in Texas is real, and the need to provide additional safeguards is increasing,” state Attorney General Ken Paxton said last year in announcing one of his office’s periodic crackdowns on illegal voting. But evidence of widespread fraud is nonexistent, and the restrictions fit a pattern of GOP politicians’ efforts to discourage voters likely to oppose them.
“Efforts to deprive any American of a convenient way to vote will have a chilling effect on voting,” said Nancy Thomas, director of the Tufts institute. “And efforts to chill college students’ voting are despicable — and very frustrating.”
The headline example is in New Hampshire. There, a GOP-backed law took effect this fall requiring newly registered voters who drive to establish “domicile” in the state by securing New Hampshire driver’s licenses and auto registrations, which can cost hundreds of dollars annually.
The dots are not hard to connect: According to the Tufts study, 6 in 10 New Hampshire college students come from outside the state, a rate among the nation’s highest. As early as 2011, the state’s GOP House speaker at the time, William O’Brien, promised to clamp down on unrestricted voting by students, calling them “kids voting liberal, voting their feelings, with no life experience.”
Florida’s Republican secretary of state outlawed early-voting sites at state universities in 2014, only to see 60,000 voters cast on-campus ballots in 2018 after a federal court overturned the ban. This year, the state Legislature effectively reinstated it, slipping a clause into a new elections law that requires all early-voting sites to offer “sufficient nonpermitted parking” — an amenity in short supply on densely packed campuses.
Wisconsin Republicans have imposed tough restrictions on using student IDs for voting purposes. The state requires poll workers to check signatures only on student IDs, although some schools issuing modern IDs that serve as debit cards and dorm room keys have removed signatures, which they consider a security risk.
The law also requires that IDs used for voting expire within two years, while most college ID cards have four-year expiration dates. And even students with acceptable IDs must show proof of enrollment before being allowed to vote.
“Universities have had to decide one by one whether they want to modify their IDs to make them acceptable, issue a second ID for voting purposes or do nothing,” said Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And they’ve all gone in different directions.”