New voter laws could stifle student vote

Kimberly Railey, Development Editor: Recruiting

In the 2012 presidential election, not all voting opportunities are created equal — especially those for college students.

Under Tennessee’s new voter identification law, a student ID presented at the polls won’t be considered an acceptable form of identification. In Wisconsin, college students are now barred from citing university-issued housing lists or their classmates’ vouching as proof of their residencies. And in Florida, the state’s rollback of its early voting period is poised to shrink the number of young and first-time voters.

The spate of newly passed voter restrictions, some say, chalks up to a concerted effort on the part of GOP-controlled state legislatures to suppress the voting rights of groups likely to vote for Democrats, including students. Republicans have maintained the laws are designed to crack down on voter fraud. However,  in-person fraud, which many of the new laws are supposedly combating, is “virtually nonexistent,” according to a public records search by News21, a nonpartisan investigative reporting project.

“It’s been a disappointing time,” said Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, a group aimed at young voters. “In the past year, we’ve seen incredible attempts in many states across the country to make it harder for students to vote.”

In 2008, young voters turned out in historic proportions to pull the lever for then-candiate Barack Obama, with 51 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds casting a ballot at the polls. Although none of the new laws explicitly prohibit students from voting, some students say the new barriers are overly burdensome and frustrating.

“When people try to stop us from voting where we’re living for the next four years, it’s just ridiculous,” said Josh Lieberthal, a senior at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “Although we’re not officially residents of the state, whatever decisions they make in the capital affect us.”

Lieberthal sent in an absentee ballot for Minnesota — partly so he could vote against its proposed voter ID law — so he won’t have to navigate the new restrictions.

But for college students who choose to vote in Wisconsin, the requirement will be problematic if they lack a document containing both their name and current address. Some students’ names do not appear on apartment leases or utility bills, said Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.

Prior to 2011, students in Wisconsin could cite their residency through university-provided dorm lists or through student corroboration.

“It makes it a lot harder for students to prove their residencies, and that’s a concern,” Kaminski said.

Benjamin Ries, president of Vanderbilt College Democrats in Nashville, Tenn., said many students are choosing to vote absentee because of the new voter ID law. In an email sent to Vanderbilt students in early August, the university’s Office of Active Citizenship and Service recommended students vote in their home state to avoid having their residency challenged at the polls.

“I don’t think the average student was well aware of what was happening.” Ries said. “A lot of them are just (now) going through the process, voting absentee.”

In Illinois, voter legislation is still pending. In February, 20 Republican state senators signed on to a bill that would require the state’s voters to show a government-issued photo ID when voting. Since March, the bill has been stalled.

Across the country, the momentum may be shifting toward a rejection of the voter laws.  On Tuesday, a Pennsylvania judge ruled that the state’s new restrictive voter ID law cannot be fully implemented until after Election Day. Under the law, many forms of ID would have been barred as proof of residence, including many student IDs and non-Pennsylvania driver’s licenses, possibly preventing out-of-state students from voting.

The decision came after a panel of federal judges in late August struck down Texas’ strict photo identification law, which would have required voters to show a photo ID issued by the state or the federal government to vote. The Justice Department blocked a similar law in South Carolina.

Despite the judicial victories, Smith said efforts to restrict voting are still strong and ongoing. Regardless of the intent and outcome of the laws, she said, the communication and controversy surrounding them still may deter students from the polls.

“The passage of the laws, the fighting back, the victories, the mixed messages, has the real potential to confuse people, when it comes to showing up, what to bring, and what their rights are on Election Day,” she said. “New voters are unsure voters because they’ve never gone through the process before.”