Kate McCabe / Gavel Media

Students Urged to Register to Vote as New State Laws Restrict Voting

With state and local elections only weeks away, voting rights activists nationwide are organizing efforts to get college students civically engaged by registering to vote. These efforts have been spurred on in part by those concerned that recent legislation in multiple states will restrict voter turnout among young people, as well as underrepresented voting blocs such as individuals of color and people with low incomes.

In the 2016 presidential election, 48.3% of college students went to the polls and cast their ballots. While college students may have a reputation of being politically passionate, this figure falls below the turnout rates of the population at large, which hovers around 60%.

Taking note of this disparity, candidates have begun to tailor some of their messages toward undergraduates, hoping to build a support base on campuses across the country by tapping into this hitherto underutilized voting bloc. However, despite the political zeal they may instill in their young supporters, there remain obstacles that bring down college voter turnout.

New restrictions on voting have been implemented across the country, which critics warn limit both voter eligibility and election accessibility.

According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, 25 states have passed laws since the 2010 election that make it more difficult to vote. The legislation passed by these states includes stricter voter identification and registration deadline laws, increased demands for registering to vote early or by absentee ballot, and additional measures to ensure that citizens with a past criminal conviction are not allowed to vote.

In one instance, the state of Texas has passed legislation mandating that prospective voters possess photo ID in order to register to vote. 

Ostensibly aimed at protecting against voter fraud, civil rights activists claim that these laws are in fact a back door way of disenfranchising marginalized groups within the population, particularly citizens of color. Additionally, the state closed roughly 400 polling locations in the three year period from 2013 to 2016, while also not allowing people to register online. 

While courts deliberate over the fate of these laws, they remain in force as the next presidential election year approaches.

Young voters are not immune to these obstacles, and in some instances critics warn that they seem targeted by them. For example, one of the provisions of the Texas voter ID law is that while a gun license is considered an acceptable form of ID, a student ID is not.

Despite these obstacles, college voter turnout has paradoxically increased during this same period of time, albeit marginally. The 48.3% of college students who voted in 2016 actually marks an increase of 3% from 2012.

However, this rate still lags behind the national population, and universities nationwide are engaging in efforts to raise awareness about voting registration among their students.

At Boston College, the university is partnered with TurboVote to provide students with the resources needed “to vote in every election from local to presidential,” such as allowing students to register to vote online. 

Furthermore, the BC Libraries Voter Resources guide contains additional information and links to shepherd students through the complex voting process. A list of voter registration deadlines for each state may be found at vote.org.