As Election Day 2024 looms, Republican-led legislatures are taking aim at a constituency critical to the fate of American democracy: college students. Youth voting rates broke records in 2018, 2020, and last year. Young voters were pivotal in several close gubernatorial and Senate races and referenda protecting abortion rights in Kansas and Michigan. To clamp down on ballot access, GOP-controlled statehouses in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Texas, North Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee have, among other measures, closed polling places at universities and changed residency requirements to exclude students. In March, Idaho banned the use of student IDs for voting after it saw the nation’s largest increase in registrations of 18- and 19-year-olds between 2018 and 2022.
Republicans’ voter suppression campaigns against students seem to have only had mixed success. Though some measures have likely hindered student voting, others have been overturned in court or have proved ineffective. For instance, few students in Idaho use their university IDs to vote. But one thing has remained constant: the backlash. In each instance, an awakening generation has countered Republican efforts to restrict youth voting through organizing, lawsuits, registration drives, and counter-legislation.
While Republican-led measures hinder student access to the ballot, they have also fueled grassroots mobilization and successful lawsuits, which have led to measurable victories for students. The struggle is playing out in courthouses, county offices, and campus student centers, battlegrounds where student successes—and failures—offer lessons for other citizens whose rights are threatened by today’s Republican Party.
In 2013, North Carolina enacted a restrictive voter access law imposing a strict photo ID requirement, shortening the early voting period by a week, and ending same-day voter registration as well as pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-olds. A group of students, the Department of Justice, the North Carolina NAACP, and the League of Women Voters of North Carolina sued. After a three-year legal battle, a federal appeals court struck down the law, arguing that legislators wrote it to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
In 2014, then-Florida Governor Rick Scott’s administration issued an opinion eliminating early voting sites on college and university campuses. Six University of Florida and Florida State University students, the League of Women Voters of Florida, and the Adam Goodman Foundation sued, and in 2018, a federal district court judge ruled in their favor, calling the Republican administration’s opinion “constitutionally untenable.”
Restrictive voting laws have spurred counter-organizing beyond student lawsuits, too. After a surge in student voting in 2016 helped Democrats to flip a U.S. Senate seat in New Hampshire, the Republican-controlled legislature changed the legal definition of “residency” to impose more requirements on college voters. The legislation spurred students to testify at the state capitol and run for office. It became a target for groups like NextGen America, the youth voting organization financed by the billionaire Tom Steyer. The New Hampshire ACLU and other opponents sued and ultimately won. Although Republicans control the gerrymandered state legislature, since 2016, the Granite State’s two congressional representatives and two U.S. senators have been Democrats.
In Wisconsin, a 2016 law passed by the GOP-controlled statehouse and signed by then-Governor Scott Walker requires student IDs to include an issuance date, an expiration date, and a signature to be eligible for an ID. University of Wisconsin/Madison students and those at other Wisconsin colleges and universities convinced their schools to offer free student voter IDs that met these requirements. Youth turnout has remained high in crucial races in the state, including the 2018 and 2022 midterms and this year’s highly contested Wisconsin Supreme Court primary election. Thanks to the voting advocacy group Project 72 WI, Wisconsin college campuses saw their highest student turnout ever for a state Supreme Court race.
In July 2022, the Brazos County Commissioners Court eliminated a popular early voting location from a student center at Texas A&M University in College Station. The site served A&M’s 70,000 students and its broader community and had the county’s second-highest number of early voters in 2018 and 2020. Students saw moving it off-campus as an act of voter suppression. When they learned of the change, they protested weekly Commissioners Court meetings for the next two months.
In collaboration with MOVE Texas A&M, a nonpartisan student group aiming to increase civic engagement, student organizers raised $10,000 to bus their peers, faculty, and staff to the next closest early voting location for the midterms. The county contributed an additional $5,000 to this fund, admitting the Commissioners Court had made a mistake and that the original site should return the following year, which it has.
The voting rights battle found a new frontier in March when Idaho’s Republican Governor, Brad Little, signed a voter ID bill that forbids the use of student IDs as voter identification. It’s been met with lawsuits from BABE VOTE, League of Women Voters of Idaho, and March for Our Lives, three advocacy organizations working to expand voting access.
Shiva Rajbhandari co-founded BABE VOTE in 2020 when he was just 16, along with Idaho organizers and creatives who shared his goal of registering young voters. Its irreverent name is part of its ethos of making voting “cool” and “sexy” for young people.
He told me such laws target young people’s progressive politics. “When educated young people are saying, ‘we’re done with this, we want our schools funded, we want Medicaid funded, we want a livable future here in Idaho, we want you all to address climate change, we want to protect our LGBTQ+ siblings,’ that’s a threat to certain politicians. And in order to combat that threat, they’re going to do everything in their power to reduce youth voter turnout.”
Saumya Sarin, a college student and volunteer for BABE VOTE, echoed the sentiment at a press briefing at the Idaho State Capitol to rally support against the new voting law: “There is no need for H124, and the Legislature knows it—Idaho’s Secretary of State told the Legislature that there has been no voting fraud associated with student IDs.”
Thanks partly to BABE VOTE, Idaho has the nation’s highest registration rate for new, young voters between November 2018 and September 2022. And while there’s no evidence that voter fraud is a problem in Idaho or anywhere else, a 2019 study found that all else being equal, college students in states with strict voter ID required laws will be less likely to vote than those in states without such statutes.
Progressives can learn a lot from students organizing around voting rights. One important lesson is not to count on the courts, as the Supreme Court has made very clear. While some student lawsuits have prevailed, many courts have upheld restrictive voting laws. Even when the judiciary rules for students, the victories come after protracted legal battles where students have been hindered from voting during multiple election cycles.
Student activists have demonstrated that building political support is essential. By organizing, students can achieve grassroots victories, as they did at Texas A&M when they prevailed over the Brazos County Commissioners Court.
The energy generated through such grassroots organizing can be harnessed to multiple issues. As an undergraduate at Fisk University in Nashville, Justin Jones organized young people to protest the state’s strict voter ID laws. Later elected to the Tennessee House, he and a fellow representative were unjustly expelled from the statehouse earlier this year for participating in a gun control protest. Young people led the uproar that got Jones and his colleague, who is also Black, reinstated. “It’s time for a new generation of voices to step into their power here,” Jones told CNN.
Rajbhandari, the founder of BABE VOTE, has now finished high school. In 2021, the fall of his senior year, he won a seat on the Boise school board. He’d run, in part, because he felt his school district didn’t place enough value on young voices.
When we talked, he lamented that Republican lawmakers pour energy into suppressing youth votes instead of listening to young voices. “It’s just frustrating because it doesn’t have to be that way,” he said. “We would totally support politicians that want to take actions that are real and that are affecting Idahoans.”