BY SAVANNAH MARTINCIC, CONTRIBUTOR
As the country draws nearer to the 2020 election and passes through a scattering of state elections, the issue of across-the-board attacks on voting rights for college students is becoming central to the political conversation.
2018 saw a major surge in college voting, largely thanks to an increased interest in civic engagement on campuses. A report released by Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education found that the national student voting rate doubled from 2014 to 2018 in both local and national elections.
As more students become interested in local and national politics, colleges and political organizations actively seek ways to empower students to become life-long voters and civically engaged citizens.
Walking around Mason’s campus in the months leading up to elections, you are likely to see volunteers helping students get registered to vote on campus, a scene familiar to college students across the country. Universities are also infusing civil learning into their curricula, with the goal of creating informed citizens and voters.
Despite these increased efforts to strengthen the student vote on college campuses, there are still a growing number of obstacles.
Recently, right here in Fairfax County, registrar Gary Scott rejected 171 Mason student applications, citing “invalid addresses.” When registering on campus, college students typically use general campus addresses or mailbox addresses, which can make it difficult to confirm that they are eligible to vote in the district.
The students who had their applications rejected were sent a rejection letter. However, John Powers, a lawyer with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the registrar should have requested more information — not rejected the applications outright.
While Scott’s office sent out follow-up letters with instructions on how to fix the applications, the original rejection letter will likely deter many students from voting. In case you missed it, college students are busy.
We work multiple jobs, take heavy course loads and occasionally manage some semblance of a social life. Registering to vote can be a difficult process for students, especially for those coming from out-of-state. Now imagine having to essentially redo the process. Doesn’t sound too appealing, does it?
In an interview with the Washington Post, Mason freshman Carson Heisel said that, like many, he is too busy with school to fix his application.
“I was definitely planning to vote, but I was not interested enough to go back and take the time and fill everything out,” he said.
This is not an isolated incident, and it only serves to further highlight a nationwide issue: the oppression of student voters. While this is not an inherently Republican or Democratic issue, college voters have faced pushback primarily from Republican lawmakers.
Republicans in states across the country have worked over the past decade to limit what kinds of student IDs can be used in the polls, restrict the number of polling locations on or near college campuses, and gerrymander political boundaries that divide college campuses, diluting the power of student votes.
One of the biggest boundaries for college students can be establishing eligible residency, which the 171 Mason students faced. Many Republican lawmakers, including those in New Hampshire, have passed policies that require students that drive to acquire an in-state driver’s license and car registration in order to vote. This can cause a huge financial burden on college students, who already are burdened with the rising cost of tuition.
Obtaining proper identification can also present a huge challenge for students, as six states do not accept student ID as a valid form of voter ID and another 21 states have specific criteria that student IDs much follow in order to qualify. This can include an expiration date or address, which many student IDs do not have. If colleges or universities are unwilling to reissue IDs, which can be an expensive process, students can be left without valid ID at the polls.
The 2013 decision of the Supreme Court case Shelby County vs. Holder also stripped away some of the protections outlined in the Voting Rights Act, causing the closure of 868 polling sites and making it difficult for students to reach the polls even if they had registered.
These roadblocks are growing exponentially in battleground states like Texas, where the control of Republicans is slipping as students are leaning more Democratic.
A March poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government reported that 45 percent of college students ages 18-24 leaned Democratic, compared to 29 percent who identified as Republican.
This polarization of politics is serving to further draw college students into the game as key players, making it obvious why Republicans would focus their voting restrictions and regulations on this demographic. Disguising these barriers as solutions to alleged voter fraud, Republicans can continue controlling whose vote gets heard and whose does not in states where student votes need to be heard the most.
People like to tell young people that their vote matters — that every vote matters. Now it is time to show them that they actually do.