Millennials: Don’t Get Shafted at the Polls!

Often characterized as apathetic and irrelevant, young people, especially college students, have usually been ignored come election season. However, this mythology was blown away in the 2008 and 2012 elections when young people proved to be a formidable force at the polls. Galvanized by a charismatic candidate who engaged with them, a sleeping giant had been awakened.

Young voters overwhelming supported the president, with Barack Obama capturing 60 percent of young people’s votes (ages 18-29) in 2012 and 66 percent of it in 2008. Younger voters were also key in equal marriage ballot initiatives in 2012, largely supporting measures to legalize gay marriage in Maine, Maryland and Washington state. Two-thirds of young voters supported marriage equality in those states compared to one-third of voters over 65.

On the night of Nov. 6, 2012, after young voters boosted the president’s reelection, Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, warned in a statement:

Tonight’s results hopefully put an end to the accusation of a so called ‘enthusiasm gap. This proves that any campaign that ignores young voters does so at its own peril.

Well, Republicans are no longer ignoring millennials. After failing to win the hearts and minds of young people, they’re simply resorting to disenfranchising them with voting roadblocks. Underhanded laws and restrictions that brazenly target college students are becoming more and more common in states with Republican-controlled legislatures.

North Carolina has arguably been the most aggressive in their attempts to curtail the youth vote. The state legislature has voted to eliminate same-day registration, which many first-time voters use, shorten the period for early voting and stop recognizing student IDs as valid identification at the polls. They also attempted to push a bill through the state Senate that would have forced parents to pay higher taxes if their children registered to vote where they attended college instead of in their hometown. And in the western part of the state at Appalachian State University, the State Board of Elections is moving voting sites far off-campus, reducing access.

North Carolina college students have filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming age discrimination. Their lawyers are arguing these new restrictions violate the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Not to mention that the Supreme Court decided back in 1979 that college students have a right to register and vote where they attend school.

Last summer in Ohio, which is consistently a swing state, Republicans tried to push a law through that would penalize state universities for enabling out-of-state students to vote. According to the proposed restriction, if state schools provided registration forms for students (allowing them to vote in their college town instead of their home state), they would be barred from charging those students out-of-state tuition, meaning less funding for the university.

Finally in Texas, school IDs don’t count for voter identification, but somehow gun licenses do.

The Republican justification for all this? Preventing the imaginary threat of voter fraud. Even though a report by the Department of Justice to Congress found “virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections.” And a former GOP party leader from Florida even admitted to a local newspaper that voter fraud was nonexistent before a slew of anti-voter fraud laws were pushed through in advance of the 2012 election.

With midterm elections approaching, efforts to suppress the vote of millennials will only increase. By passing laws designed to cut young people, women and minorities off at the polls, Republican leaders are rendering a vast swath of the population invisible. Now that millennials are just beginning to wield their influence in our country’s democratic tradition, they’re being met with roadblocks meant to take their constitutional rights away.

Groups like the Feminist Majority Foundation (publisher of Ms.), the Brennan Center for Justice and Rock the Vote are working to ensure the voices of young people are heard this November 4th: The FMF is introducing a new civic engagement campaign, Youth ShowOUT, with Planned Parenthood Generation and Advocates for Youth; the Brennan Center has an interactive map of what is required to vote state-by-state; and Rock the Vote allows you to register online. It’s necessary now more than ever. Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said in a statement:

Our organizers on college campuses throughout the country will help to ensure that student votes are not suppressed and that young women and people of color, who have been traditionally targeted for suppression, are heard at the ballot box.

Photo courtesy of Jamelah E. via Creative Commons 2.0.


Associate editor of Ms. magazine