The Voting Wars Come to Campus

Students face a growing maze of voting restrictions. Can they find their way through in time for 2020?

Texas: home of corn dogs, Matthew McConaughey, and some of America’s most restrictive voting laws. To register yourself, you have to print out a form and deliver it to the county clerk, because unlike most states, Texas has no online voter registration. To help register others, you must be certified as a “volunteer deputy registrar,” a process that requires either taking an exam or attending an often long and awkwardly timed training session. Your certificate is only valid in the county where it is obtained.

The state 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. 

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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. 

That’s because at institutions like UT Austin and ASU Tempe, students and staff work to make registering and voting as easy as possible, even as Texas and Arizona have made it harder. They find new, creative ways of registering students. They explain complex voting requirements. They work with local officials to increase polling access on campus. In doing so, they are supported by a growing network of national organizations that provide funding, share information, and help schools develop plans to simplify getting out the vote. (The Washington Monthly incorporates data from these organizations in its college rankings. Both UT Austin and ASU Tempe received perfect scores.) 

These efforts appear to be making a difference. Nationwide, college voting rates increased by more than three percentage points between 2012 and 2016, more than the overall turnout increase. Between 2014 and 2018, youth turnout rose by nearly a third. 

In an era of high partisanship and close contests, student voting can make a tremendous impact. In Arizona, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won her U.S. Senate seat by 55,900 votes, roughly the size of ASU Tempe’s student population. In Texas, youth turnout tripled between 2014 and 2018, and Democrat Beto O’Rourke overperformed in counties with a high percentage of young voters. That means that UT Austin was at the vanguard of a trend that helped bring O’Rourke surprisingly close to unseating Ted Cruz from the U.S. Senate. 

The increase in student voting is counterintuitive, but it fits a broader pattern. Even as franchise restrictions target certain communities, political scientists have found that they do not usually result in lower proportional turnout. There is little evidence that voter ID laws have led to markedly less voting among racial minorities, even though minorities are far less likely than white people to possess the kinds of identification these laws require. Researchers aren’t quite sure why. But several have suggested that the reason is counter-mobilization: the harder a state works to suppress turnout, the harder people fight back.

This, of course, doesn’t stop legislatures from passing even more restrictive measures. Texas, for example, recently passed a law that will limit early voting, and it is considering implementing harsher penalties for registration mistakes. Arizona is adding restrictions on early voting. The result is a game of whack-a-mole between lawmakers and voting activists. As the former find more and more ways to limit the franchise, the latter create more and more tools to get out the vote. 

There are twenty million college students in the United States. They are younger and more diverse than the country as a whole. The result of the 2020 election could hinge on who wins this turnout fight.

On August 5, 2015, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas’s voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act. The state’s attorney general vowed to enforce it anyway.

Later that month, a friendly and fast-talking former journalist named Kassie Phebillo arrived in Austin to begin a PhD in political communications at the University of Texas. To support herself financially, she took a job overseeing TX Votes, the nonpartisan organization charged by the university with increasing turnout. At the time, the group barely existed. It had just one returning member, and both of Phebillo’s would-be supervisors had left the school before she even showed up.

Still, Phebillo was drawn to the opportunity to learn more about her field and to mentor students. “I’m a first-gen college student,” she said. “Having those relationships changed my life, and so I try to do that for others.” She sat down with the sole returning TX Votes member—then senior Zach Foust—and began discussing how to restructure the group. They studied how other schools worked to get out the vote and found themselves particularly interested in colleges where students partnered with diverse groups to boost registration and turnout. The two decided to establish a civic engagement alliance and began recruiting a host of student clubs, political and nonpolitical alike, to come on board. By the end of the 2015–16 school year, a small but eclectic group of campus organizations had joined—from the Longhorn League of United Latin American Citizens to the chess club.

Victoria Ochoa, a recent ASU graduate, said that Arizona’s 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 financial aid.

Phebillo and Foust asked that clubs in the alliance have one member become a volunteer deputy registrar, part of a broader strategy to create a network of students who could register voters across campus. To accomplish that, Phebillo brought county officials to campus to hold registrar training sessions and asked TX Votes members to bring their friends. Like any good college event planner, they provided free pizza to attract a bigger audience. The events were popular. Between September 2015 and the 2016 election, TX Votes helped train well over 100 volunteer deputy registrars. Together, they registered more than 17,000 voters. 

I met Phebillo at UT Austin in early July 2019, in the middle of one of the university’s many freshman orientation sessions. She gave me a partial tour of campus. Inside the offices of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, she showed me a shelf stocked with national turnout awards and trophies won by TX Votes. One award was for having the most improved undergraduate turnout rate of any college in the country.

Later, I joined Phebillo at the student activities fair, where representatives of TX Votes were trying to recruit new members. Rising sophomore Janae Steggall was especially busy, hustling for the attention of what seemed like every incoming freshman who passed by. “What’s your major?” she would shout. Whatever the reply, Steggall would motion the student closer and deliver her pitch: “Awesome! We’re TX Votes, a nonpartisan organization on campus focused on voter registration and education.”

As I chatted with Phebillo and her team, it became clear that TX Votes has developed a sizable footprint on campus. Phebillo told me that during the 2016–17 school year, TX Votes deepened its involvement in the network of national organizations that help universities bolster turnout. It participated in both the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge and the Voter Friendly Campus program, drawing up a detailed plan that both created new initiatives and evaluated past work. After the 2016 election, the group further expanded its civic engagement alliance, which now has more than 100 organizational members. In March 2017, Phebillo became certified to train volunteer deputy registrars herself, allowing TX Votes to increase its training output. 

One year later, in March 2018, several TX Votes members successfully campaigned to get the county to open a second polling place on campus. The group also devised a new strategy for registering students: visiting classrooms. Class, they reasoned, is where college students go (or, at least, are supposed to go), and students might be more tempted to register if everyone around them were registering as well. But to take advantage of this, TX Votes first needed permission from the university’s faculty.

“We emailed every single professor teaching a course at this university in fall 2018,” Anthony Zhang, the group’s incoming president, told me. “We had to manually compile that list, starting with accounting and going all the way down to Yiddish.” 

I asked how long it took to get contact information for the school’s roughly 3,000 faculty. Zhang shook his head. “I honestly don’t even want to think about it,” he said.

Enough professors got on board to keep TX Votes busy throughout early fall 2018. In total, they visited 264 classrooms before the midterm election. The group trained hundreds of new registrars. Collectively, UT Austin volunteer deputy registrars signed nearly 14,000 people up to vote. Phebillo told me that she spent weeks shuttling back and forth from UT Austin to the Travis County tax office carrying thick stacks of registration forms. She even postponed her honeymoon by a week to make sure TX Votes submitted all its forms before Texas’s October deadline. “Note to self,” she recalled thinking. “Don’t get married right before the deadline to get registered to vote.” 

The ten days vacationing in Colorado, however, were only a temporary respite. On election day, Phebillo had to solve problems involving Texas voting requirements. The ID law, she said, causes confusion among both voters and poll workers. During the 2018 elections, for example, Phebillo heard that UT students were being turned away at the polls because they had Texas IDs that listed addresses outside of Austin—which is legal under Texas law. So she called the county clerk’s office.

“I had to make this call and say, ‘This is happening on campus, and people are posting about it on social media already,’ ” Phebillo told me. She warned the county that if the problem wasn’t resolved, it would be on the front page of the campus newspaper the next day. “It was fixed immediately,” she said.

Janae Steggall said this kind of advocacy was critical in helping overwhelmed young voters. “I know that as a student and as a young person, when a person—especially in a voting station—says no and they turn you away, you feel hopeless,” she said. “If they don’t know about TX Votes, if they don’t know about Kassie [Phebillo], then they don’t vote.”

Much of Phebillo’s success stems from her good relationships with officials in Travis County—one of the islands of blue in red Texas. She knows both the tax assessor, who is charged with overseeing voter registration, and the county clerk very well. Both have proven willing to partner with students. They endorsed and helped champion the students’ proposal for a second on-campus polling site. The tax assessor, Bruce Elfant, is an alum of UT Austin. “We know we’re privileged to be in Travis County,” Phebillo said. 

When it comes to student voting, Arizona has a lot in common with Texas. The state’s voter ID law excludes student IDs. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of polling places across the state fell by more than 200. And in 2016, the state’s GOP-controlled legislature passed a law that made collecting and turning in another voter’s completed ballot, even with the voter’s permission, a felony. This meant that Arizonans could no longer rely on friends or community groups to help them vote.

But students and administrators at ASU Tempe, which comprises more than half of the total ASU student body, managed to overcome these impediments. Between 2012 and 2016, ASU Tempe’s voting rate increased by 11 percent. Like UT Austin, the school conducts widespread voter registration drives. The university works to get students registered when they move into dorms and reminds them to vote on its online portal. But the most important part of ASU Tempe’s voter engagement work was expanding polling access on campus. And that was not easy to do.

That’s because, unlike Travis County in Texas, Arizona’s Maricopa County is not known for being voter friendly. Until 2017, the county’s chief officer for registration and voting was Republican Helen Purcell, whose twenty-eight-year tenure as county recorder drew controversy. In 2012, Purcell became nationally infamous when her office put out Spanish-language voter flyers with the wrong election date. Then, during a 2016 special election, the office misprinted Spanish-language ballots. Between 2012 and 2016, Purcell reduced the number of primary election polling places in Maricopa County by 70 percent, and on primary election day, many voters were caught waiting in five-plus-hour lines.

Purcell told me that she regretted the errors. She felt especially bad about cutting the number of polling sites. “It was my decision,” she said. “It was not a good decision. I took responsibility for it and apologize for it.”

The game of whack-a-mole continues. University students and staffers find new ways to surmount obstacles to voting rights, and legislators find new obstacles to put up.

Before 2016, ASU Tempe had an early-voting site on campus, but students had to leave campus to vote on election day. This was a longtime point of contention between Purcell and the university’s student leaders, who campaigned year after year for that to change. Eventually, Purcell agreed to move a polling station onto campus. Beginning on November 8, 2016, students who registered at their university housing could vote on campus on election day. 

That was also the day that Democrat Adrian Fontes defeated Purcell. The campaign was high profile, dominated by controversies over Purcell’s elections management. Once in office, Fontes took steps to make voting easier. Starting in 2018, any resident of Maricopa County could print and cast their ballot at the ASU Tempe campus site on election day, even if they lived in a different precinct. This was significant, because Maricopa County is enormous: it’s home to more than half of Arizona’s population and is geographically larger than New Jersey. The change meant that many ASU students who grew up in other precincts in the county no longer had to re-register or travel home in order to vote on election day.

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.”

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.

The fight to increase student access to the franchise will not be easy. Many states continue to make voting laws more restrictive. In 2019, for example, Texas passed legislation that effectively bars “mobile voting”—early-voting sites that move from place to place. The law is expected to hit Travis County especially hard. “Travis County cannot afford to replace all of those mobile voting locations with permanent voting sites,” Dana DeBeauvoir, the county clerk, told one Austin news outlet. 

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. Elsewhere, voting is becoming even trickier. Iowa recently passed legislation requiring voter IDs and imposing a variety of new burdens on registration, early voting, and absentee voting. In the 2018 elections, Arkansas enshrined voter ID requirements in the state’s constitution. And in 2018, New Hampshire’s GOP-controlled legislature passed a bill that appears surgically tailored to prevent students from voting. As of this past July, New Hampshire residents who want to vote need to register their vehicle in the state, or risk paying a fine. In an interview with NBC, a Dartmouth student who spent $300 re-registering his car described the law as a “poll tax.” (New Hampshire Democrats, who took control of the legislature last November, passed legislation to repeal the law, but it was vetoed by Republican Governor Chris Sununu.)

In other words, the game of whack-a-mole continues. University students and staffers find new ways to surmount obstacles to voting rights, and legislators find new obstacles to put up. This helps explain why Democrats have increasingly pushed for nationwide measures to protect voting rights. The first bill Democrats introduced upon assuming control of the House of Representatives would require all states to implement automatic voter registration for federal races. Separately, several Democrats have introduced legislation to allow any voter to cast their ballot by mail, prior to election day. 

But, to state the obvious, those bills are going nowhere as long as the GOP controls the Senate and White House. Until that changes, it’s up to turnout activists to overcome whatever barriers are put in their path. “I really see my role as constantly thinking about how we can do what we can do better, and always within the letter of the law,” Kassie Phebillo told me. Back at the University of Texas club fair, Janae Steggall was still busy trying to get new students to join TX Votes. 

“Hi! What’s your major?” she said to an incoming freshman wandering by the booth. “Business,” he replied. She motioned him in. “Awesome!” she said. “We’re TX Votes, a nonpartisan organization on campus focused on voter registration and education.” The student listened carefully as Steggall made her pitch. “You sold me,” he said when she finished. Then, he signed up.

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Daniel Block

Daniel Block is an editor at the Washington Monthly.