There’s the “One man, one vote” principle. Then there’s the “One student, no vote” reality.
Such is the case with student voter suppression. It’s a problem I ran into when running the Vote No on 1 Campaign in my home state of Tennessee. Student activists are facing added challenges to voter registration and accessibility across the country.
In 2014, I worked as a campus organizer for the Vote No on 1 Campaign at my school, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The majority of my work was mobilizing my fellow students to go vote “no” on a proposed anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution. This turned out to be much more difficult than it needed to be.
There were plenty of hoops to jump through. This was made worse by the reality that students tend to be brand new to the voting process, and aren’t fully familiar with their rights. First everyone had to be registered before a certain date, as there was no same day voter registration. Seems simple enough until you account for the numbers. There were a total of 27,410 students enrolled at UT in 2014. Let me break this down even further. The numbers I’m about to use are for 2015. The vast majority of students are in-state, but only 6,122 are from Knox County, the county in which UT resides. The other 16,388 in-state students and 4,088 out-of-state students have to choose whether to register where they go to school or where they’re from originally.
Tennesseeans can mail-in their voter registration, but they have to cast their first ballot in person. That eliminated absentee voting for a large portion of students. The students that were first time voters had to register early enough to be able to vote when they returned home for fall break. It was that or miss class to go home to vote. Skipping class isn’t an option for many, because you miss important assignments, tests, and have wasted tuition money you spent for that class. Out-of-state students also have to get a Tennessee driver’s license within 30 days of registering to vote. Again, class and work schedules could make this nearly impossible for students, plus there’s a fee. And what if you don’t even have a car in Tennessee? Did I mention Tennessee has Voter ID Laws? Oh, and student ID’s aren’t acceptable forms of photo identification, even if they’re from a public institution. Faculty and staff can use their ID’s from public colleges, though. Students are just special like that.
Imagine explaining all of that to thousands of students. Students already busy with classes, tests, work, and club activities. Tabling is a great way of reaching out to the campus, but students are always rushing around and don’t have time between classes to absorb all that information and fill out voter registration forms. There are very few things more saddening than telling an eager student that they can’t vote on an issue they care about because they missed a deadline.
And then you have to get the students to the polls. There was early voting at the university center in 2012, and we thought that would be the case in 2014. Nope. And the university didn’t provide transportation to voting locations on Election Day. Activist groups on our campus organized shuttles and rides.
Tennessee isn’t alone in facing student voter suppression. Conservatives across the country have made it harder for everyone to vote, particularly students. This is because college students tend to vote liberal. Neither Texas nor South Carolina list student ID’s as an acceptable form of ID to vote.
Students have the legal right to vote where they go to school. This is outlined in the Higher Education Act of 1965. But the barriers to student voting actively disenfranchise young people. People are challenging these discriminatory laws. A group of students has filed a federal lawsuit against Tennessee’s ban on student ID’s. The stereotype is that young people are apathetic and don’t vote. The truth is young people want to vote and participate in democracy. But how can we break this stereotype if state governments are actively disenfranchising us?