Vanderbilt University student Will Newell wishes it was easier for college students like him to cast ballots in Tennessee, one of 14 states holding a presidential primary on Super Tuesday.
The campus has no locations for early voting, so students must visit an off-campus polling location to cast a ballot on Election Day. Newell drives but worries that many students who don’t have their own transportation won’t make it to a precinct. He said some campus groups offer rides to students, but the university itself does not provide a shuttle.
He supports a bill introduced in the Tennessee Legislature that would require early voting locations at large colleges and universities in the state. That’s not the only restriction working against college students in the state. Tennessee, where overall voter turnout is low, is among several states that does not allow a college student ID. But it does allow a handgun license.
“It just makes the last part of actually getting them to the polls to vote a lot more difficult,” Newell, a senior public policy and economics major, said of the ballot-casting hurdles faced by students in the state.
As Democratic candidates seek a boost from young voters in 2020, their impact at the polls could be blunted in a number of states that make voting more difficult for college students. Those include laws related to voter IDs, residency requirements and on-campus polling places. Critics say many of those laws are designed to dampen turnout among voters who typically lean Democratic.
College groups aligned with the Democratic Party are mobilizing this year in an effort to defeat President Donald Trump’s re-election, said Matt Nowling, national director of communications for the College Democrats of America.
“Republicans see that and they’re scared,” said Nowling, a junior at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. “College Democrats have been at the forefront of fighting against these issues.”
Their efforts face obstacles, however.
Democrats say Republican-controlled legislatures in some states are actively trying to keep college students away from the polls. Some laws have been challenged in court, such as in New Hampshire, where a law essentially makes out-of-state college students subject to residency requirements like obtaining a state driver’s license or registering their vehicles.
In Texas, Democrats have sued over a law requiring early voting locations to be open for the entire early voting period of 12 days. The law is geared to stopping “rolling polling,” which allowed local governments to use temporary mobile voting sites at college campuses, nursing homes and other locations.
Supporters say it’s a response to placement of temporary voting locations at high school events during elections that feature local bond measures requiring tax increases. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, calls rolling polling a “predatory practice” that causes taxpayers to suffer.
“You had the bad actors go out there and use mobile voting locations to target particular voters,” said James Quintero, director of the foundation’s Center for Local Governance.
Quintero said the new law allows polling places to be open on campuses for all 12 days of early voting. But Democrats have pointed to the timing of the law, which was passed months after a dramatic spike in voter turnout in 2018.
Glen Maxey, legislative affairs director for the Texas Democratic Party, said the law hurts certain voting groups, such seniors and students.
“It was very clear they were trying to stop college student voting,” Maxey said.
Texas and Tennessee are among seven states where college identification cards are not allowed at polling places, with laws enacted by Republican-controlled legislatures between 2008 and 2018. The others are Arizona, Iowa, North Dakota, Ohio and South Carolina — all are states won by Donald Trump in 2016.
Bills working their way through some state legislatures also address college voting.
A law proposed by a Republican lawmaker in Arizona would prohibit students using college dormitory addresses in voter registration. The state already keeps student IDs off its list of approved voter identification. A bill proposed in the Arizona House would explicitly prohibit the use of college or university IDs at polling places.
“It’s not just trying to come up with laws that directly disenfranchise students,” said Rachel Clay, southeast regional director for the Campus Vote Project. “It’s creating laws that make something that’s already challenging and confusing more challenging and confusing for young people.”
The Campus Vote Project was launched in 2012 by the Fair Elections Center, a non-partisan voting rights group, and has been working to increase interest in voting among college students.
Democrats are counting on increasing the college voter turnout in this year’s presidential election, which also could help their candidates in races for Congress and state legislatures. A report from Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education showed that college student voting rates in the 2018 midterm elections doubled compared with the 2014 midterms.
Some Democratically controlled states, like California, are trying to make campus voting easier. A new law requires county elections officials to consider placing voting centers on university or college campuses. State universities also are required to designate one person per campus as a “civic and voter empowerment coordinator.”
In Tennessee, Democratic state Rep. London Lamar has proposed a law that would require county election commissions to place early voting locations at colleges or universities with at least 8,000 students.
In Lamar’s hometown of Memphis, Landon Shelby has to vote off-campus. Shelby, a University of Memphis junior and a Republican, said he would like to see campus polling places so students don’t have to drive or hitch a ride to a precinct.
“In years past, the University of Memphis has helped find transportation to the polls, but I would definitely like to see it become more common,” said Shelby, secretary of student government government relations at the university.
The chances of that happening any time soon aren’t great. Lamar’s early voting legislation will face an uphill fight in the Republican-dominated General Assembly, especially in an election year.
But the bill has a Republican co-sponsor, and Lamar hopes her GOP colleagues agree that it’s important to simplify the voting process for college students.
“The bill is about everybody being able to vote on college campuses,” Lamar said. “It’s to ensure that the younger generation takes part in the political process.”