In a country where voting in a local, state or national election is the foundation of our democracy, voter suppression efforts are a commonality. Throughout our history, efforts to suppress the rights of women, people of color, people of lower socioeconomic standings and other classifications of citizens have established roadblocks on our country’s road to fair elections. The most recent victim of these efforts are college students.
The 2018 midterm elections saw a rise in voter turnouts for college-age students. In 2014, the national student voting rate was 19.3%, but the 2018 midterms saw a spike to 40.3% according to Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education. Essentially, the student voting rate more than doubled between midterm election periods.
It is not a coincidence then, that as student participation rises, more efforts to suppress college students’ voting rights are surfacing. States such as Wisconsin, Tennessee, Texas, Iowa, North Carolina, Florida and more have instituted restrive rules and laws that made it harder for students to vote. Currently making headlines now is New Hampshire.
The New York Times reported last week on a Republican-backed law that would require “newly registered voters who drive to establish ‘domicile’ in the state by securing New Hampshire driver’s licenses and auto registrations.” This rule, framed in a way that argues protection against voter fraud, actually implements extra costs, in amounts over hundreds of dollars annually, for out-of-state students who attend higher education in New Hampshire.
A Tufts study found that six in 10 New Hampshire college students are from other states. If these students wish to vote, they need to pay to change their driver’s licenses to state-versions. If they vote and fail to pay the fees and change their licenses, they can be charged with a misdemeanor that is often “punishable with up to one year in jail,” according to an article published on the American Civil Liberties Union website.
In 2011, William O’Brien, Republican speaker of the house for the New Hampshire Legislature at the time, was quoted calling New Hampshire college students: “kids voting liberal, voting their feelings, with no life experience.” Despite the nationally accepted standard of 18 as the legal voting age in our country, Republican leaders, such as O’Brien, seem determined to undermine college voters as having no “life experience” which is somehow related to the right to vote.
And in other states where voter suppression is high, elections are often won by very thin margins. The New York Times reported that in 2016, Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire won by only 1,017 votes over her opponent Kelly Ayotte. In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper won by a larger amount (10,000 votes) in a state with nearly 500,000 undergraduates. And for a national perspective, Donald Trump won Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes, when the University of Wisconsin alone has more than 170,000 students enrolled. Tufts Institute reported that student turnout for the 2016 election rose from 2012, except for in Wisconsin, where it fell sharply after the state implemented their voter ID law for the first time that year. In each of these states where elections were close, student voter restriction efforts are heavily present, and is actively impacting the results of elections.
It is important for students to be aware of these efforts happening in real time across our nation. Politicians and organizations are targeting students, because they are afraid of the young energized and passionate individuals who pose a crucial voting force in the upcoming 2020 presidential election.
As Maine students, we are lucky to have fair and open voting rights and practices. The Maine.gov website clearly explains how both in and out-of-state-students are able to register to vote on campus, even on election day itself. The website states that students can “establish a voting residence at your Maine school address if you present intention to remain at that address for the time being, whether that residence is a dorm, apartment, house or even a hotel.”
The University of Maine campus is also one that fosters an excited and encouraging environment around student voting. Last year, before the 2018 midterm elections, The UMaine UVote and UMaine Voter Activation Team worked together to register UMaine students, encourage them to vote and inform students about the voting process.
“If students want a political system responsive to the concerns of young people then voting is an important first step,” says Rob Glover, leader of the UMaine Voter Activation Team and associate professor of Honors and political science. “That’s why it’s encouraging to see a nearly 10% increase in UMaine student voting in the 2018 mid-terms. But there’s a lot more work to do and all of us can be involved in that effort.”
Voting in our country is a privilege and a right. Any effort to suppress an American citizen who wishes to act on this right is wrong and undemocratic. All students, even those who study on campuses, like UMaine, that encourage students to vote, need to be aware of the efforts to suppress young voices. College students have been energized by recent political events, and we will not tolerate any effort to silence us.