The Voting Wars Come to Campus

Washington Monthly,  August 26, 2019

"[Texas]  has also made it harder to cast a ballot. Between 2013 and 2016, Texas eliminated more than 400 polling locations, the largest drop in any state during that time. In 2013, after years of litigation, it implemented a strict voter ID law. The law, which lists seven kinds of acceptable IDs, became infamous for its brazenly partisan implications—handgun licenses are okay, for example, while student IDs are not. 

All of which makes the following statistic so surprising: at the University of Texas at Austin, the state’s flagship university, undergraduate turnout increased from almost 39 percent to 53 percent between 2012 and 2016. Over that same time period, national youth turnout stayed roughly constant. The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement at Tufts University, which calculates campus voting rates, has not yet released numbers for last year’s midterms. But at UT Austin’s on-campus polling locations, the number of early ballots cast was more than three times higher than it was in 2014. (Travis County only provides polling site specific data for early voting.)

The state of Texas is not alone in seeming to apply tougher voting rules to college students, who as a group are more left-leaning than the overall electorate. In New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Iowa, and Arizona—all presidential battlegrounds—Republican-controlled legislatures have created particular obstacles for college voters. And yet, in the midst of this clampdown, there are clear signs that students and schools are surmounting voting barriers and countering their impact—and not just in Texas. At Arizona State University in Tempe, for example, despite a restrictive voter ID law and new limits on mail-in ballot collection, student voting rates went up by double digits between 2012 and 2016. 


At ASU, students are still struggling to overcome some of Arizona’s more burdensome voting requirements. Victoria Ochoa, a recent ASU graduate who worked to increase the school’s turnout, told me that the ID requirements have sown confusion among students, many of whom come from out of state and are afraid that obtaining some kind of Arizona ID might impact their access to financial aid. That isn’t true, Ochoa said, but “there’s been no easy way to explain that.”


Arizona, meanwhile, just passed a new law that extends its ID requirements to early voting. This will create headaches for students at Arizona State. Of the ASU students who cast ballots in 2016, more than 50 percent did so before election day.

To solve this problem, the student government is working to get administrators to provide students with zero-fee utility bills, which would provide proof of address to students and could potentially be used as voter IDs. It’s a technique they learned about from a national democratic engagement conference. The ASU students and staff I spoke with are optimistic that it will work." 



By Daniel Block

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Hannah Piercey