Students Challenge North Carolina Voter ID Laws

For years, civil rights organizations have successfully argued to overturn voter ID laws on the grounds that they disproportionately disenfranchise poor and minority voters. But this week, college students are having their say as well. Lawyers for seven North Carolina college students joined the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Department of Justice to argue a lawsuit against a recently enacted voting law they say targets student voters.

The law, signed by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory just one month after the controversial Shelby County v Holder Supreme Court decision (which gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act,) requires voters to provide specific, government-issued photo identification and reduces available methods of registering and voting. Lawyers for the students argue that the law violates the 26th Amendment, which stipulates that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.” According to the suit, filed in November of last year:

The youth vote in North Carolina is significant: North Carolina is home to more than 500,000 students, including a significant number who have moved here from other states to attend school. All of these students are legally entitled to vote in North Carolina and to register where they attend school.

Previous Supreme Court decisions affirm students’ legal entitlement to vote where they attend school, even if they don’t intend to reside there permanently, and yet college students are particularly vulnerable to voter suppression efforts. Lack of transportation makes it difficult for students to get to polling places off campus, and their tendency to move residences frequently complicates voter registration. The North Carolina law and others across the country target students on both of these fronts.

The North Carolina law disqualifies the use of  student IDs and most out-of-state drivers’ licenses as acceptable forms of voter ID. This means that, along with reregistering to vote in North Carolina, out-of-state students will have to secure new in-state IDs. Students who move to college from within the state will have to show additional proof of residency if the home address on their IDs doesn’t match the school address on their voter registration form. As of May, 31 states had enacted voter ID laws, and a growing number of these states are refusing to accept student IDs.

The North Carolina law also eliminates same-day voter registration and prevents 16- and 17-year-olds from preregistering to vote once they turn 18. Only 10 states in the country still allow same-day registration and only 22 allow preregistration, despite the fact that, according to Rock the Vote President Ashley Spillane,

Policies like same-day voter registration and preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds were proven to boost youth participation. … Over 160,000 eligible young people were automatically registered to vote after preregistering in 2010-2013.

Many students also rely on early voting—opening the polls a number of days before election day—in order to fit a trip to the polls into their schedules. The North Carolina law targets this as well, cutting the early voting period from 17 to 10 days. Thirty-three states currently allow voters the flexibility of early voting, but several have joined North Carolina in shortening their voting periods as well.

Amidst this legislative change and legal debate, registering and voting can become a minefield of disinformation for college students. The important thing to remember is that students can legally register to vote in the state where they attend school, even if it is not their permanent residence. Registering to vote at a school address in most cases will not affect a student’s …

  • … financial aid (such as Pell Grants, Perkins and Stafford Loans, Academic Competitive Grants and SMART Grants). For state-based financial aid, registering to vote in another state will have no effect on most students if they are still dependents of their parents.

  • … tax benefits. Parents won’t be disqualified from the $3,500 tax break they receive from claiming their student as a dependent. No matter where they register to vote, if students make less than $3,500 per year and their parents provide more than half their financial support, they can claim still be claimed as a dependent for tax purposes.

  • … insurance. As long as college students are listed as their parents’ dependents they can be covered under their parents’ health policy.

It will take action from students, like those filing suit against the North Carolina law, to combat disinformation and fight voter-suppression efforts. Organizations such as Get Out Her Vote provide the tools for action on campus: Students can host voter registration events, petition for voting machines on campus and write letters to the campus newspaper, among other actions.  When state legislatures attempt to stifle the youth vote, students need to make their voices heard.

Photo of student voting courtesy of Flickr user Francisco Osorio


Emily Shugerman is a politics major at Occidental College and editor in chief of The Occidental Weekly. Follow her on Twitter.