Students at the historically Black Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, lost their on-campus polling place this semester after the Republican-dominated state legislature outlawed polling places that do not stay open for the entire 12-day, early-voting period — commonly referred to as “pop-up” polls. The new law took effect in September, and Huston-Tillotson students who voted on November 5 had to trek over to the Austin Public Library’s Carver Branch a half-mile away.
“The way I see it is disenfranchisement upon students of color,” says Jared Breckenridge, a senior majoring in education and the former president of the university’s NAACP chapter. The loss of the campus polling place, he says, comes on top of other barriers Huston-Tillotson students regularly face as they navigate the state’s voter ID law, which doesn’t allow them to use their student ID cards to cast a ballot.
The university’s NAACP regularly organizes student registration and education efforts on campus, and is working on formulating what its new voter engagement strategy will look like now with the loss of the school’s polling place, Breckenridge says.
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Along with Huston-Tillotson’s polling place, Austin Community College, which has a diverse student body of 72,000 mostly low-income students, lost polling places across nine of its 11 campuses. Other campuses across the state also took major hits, with six polling places shuttered at colleges in Fort Worth, and two shuttered in the border town of Brownsville.
It’s not only happening in Texas. Republican lawmakers across the country are erecting new barriers to keep students from the voting booth precisely because young people, who lean heavily to the left, are beginning to flex their electoral power in force: College student turnout more than doubled from 2014 to 2018, according to numbers tracked by Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education.
Issues like the climate emergency and Trump’s attacks on vulnerable communities motivated 40.3 percent of 10 million students tracked by Tufts to vote during the 2018 midterm election, surpassing even the overall increase in the national turnout rate. With 20 million students enrolled at colleges and universities across the U.S., this young and diverse population is emerging as a crucial voting bloc that could potentially determine the outcome of the 2020 general election.
Republican lawmakers are taking these numbers seriously. In response, they are impeding voting eligibility for out-of-state students, outlawing pop-up and early voting sites, and enacting increasingly strict requirements on student IDs under the guise of preventing “electoral fraud” (which is practically nonexistent) in Republican-controlled, presidential battleground states.
Republicans in Texas argue their new ban on pop-up polls is intended to prevent abuse in school bond elections. Voting rights advocates, however, point out that the new law was crafted just broadly enough to outlaw the routine practice of moving polling places to reach as many voters as possible during the early voting period.
In the broader right-wing effort to keep poor people, people of color, immigrants, and incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people from the ballot, students are just the latest population to become a target of increased suppression efforts.
Voting Barriers Spread Ahead of 2020
Florida is adopting Texas’s strategy: The state legislature reinstated a 2014 ban on early-voting sites at state universities this year after a federal court overturned the ban in 2018. Republicans there effectively skirted the court’s ruling by adding a clause into a new elections law requiring densely packed campus voting sites to offer “sufficient non-permitted parking.”
In New Hampshire, where six in 10 college students come from outside the state, a Republican-backed law now requires newly registered voters who drive to secure expensive New Hampshire driver’s licenses and auto registrations. (Students who don’t drive can still obtain a state ID without these requirements.)
Republicans in North Carolina and Wisconsin are cracking down on student IDs. Wisconsin now requires student IDs to have signatures in order to function as voter identification, even as many schools are removing such signatures as they issue updated IDs that also serve as debit cards and dorm room keys. The IDs must expire within two years in order to be used for voter identification, but most college IDs expire in four. Even IDs that meet these stringent standards aren’t enough: Students must also show proof of enrollment in their educational institution before being allowed to vote.
After the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina’s voter ID law as racially discriminatory in 2016, Republicans enacted a voter ID law last year that allowed student IDs but mandated that universities attest under penalty of perjury that their ID cards are issued only after a student’s citizenship status, Social Security number and birthday have been verified. A later revision eliminated the mention of perjury, but confusion remains over the law’s new requirement that schools submit “documentation satisfactory to the State Board of Elections,” proving that the ID requirements have been met.
Iowa recently passed a voter ID law that excludes student IDs while imposing new restrictions and requirements on registration, early voting and absentee voting. Arkansas codified its voter ID requirements in the state’s constitution during the 2018 elections. Lastly, Arizona recently passed a new law that extends its voter ID requirements, which exclude student IDs, to early voting.
But these new restrictions aren’t being enacted without a fight. Back in Texas, state Democrats and the Democratic campaign arms for the U.S. House and Senate are suing the state over its move to end temporary polling places, arguing the new law is unconstitutional because it discriminates against young voters.
“It’s not the first time we’ve seen a tactic like this used against us on this campus,” Huston-Tillotson’s Breckenridge says. “We’re just going to have to fight against it.” And that’s exactly what many students are doing.
Students Surmount Suppression Efforts
Young people on college campuses are finding creative ways to get around these barriers and register more of their peers in advance of the 2020 election. At the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, the nonpartisan voter education group TX Votes, which doesn’t engage in advocacy work, has vastly increased turnout through its registration efforts by engaging dozens of student organizations and professors. According to a Tufts report, undergraduate turnout at UT increased from 17.6 percent in 2014 to 54.8 percent during the 2018 midterm election — one of the largest turnout increases at any university in the nation.
Kassie Phebillo, a political communications Ph.D. student at UT and coordinator of TX Votes said the organization, in coalition with other student groups, has registered more than 5,000 UT students so far this year. The group’s student registrars canvassed more than 200 classrooms during this month’s early voting period, reaching out to professors directly for an invitation. They also make sure to hit on-campus events and campus move-in dates.
“We have this goal of student organizations across campus creating a tradition around voting, so that they do the same thing for every election, and that’s something that they know they’re going to do together, because we know we just have to get people into that habit of voting,” Phebillo tells Truthout.
The ball really got rolling in 2016, she says, when the organization grew to about 20 members, reflecting a larger national trend in student turnout and engagement in the electoral process. This year, she says, the group has ballooned to 62 members. “We were shocked. We were actually really not prepared for that,” Phebillo says of the explosion in interest.
UT’s two polling sites are permanent, meaning they operate for the entirety of the early voting period and on Election Day, so the campus wasn’t impacted by the new ban on pop-up polls. Still, Phebillo says she has encountered problems at the polls before, thanks to the state’s ID law. TX Votes aims to help students figure out the ID process ahead of voting.
The group’s tight partnership with Travis County election officials has made all the difference in its success rates. The county tax assessor, who oversees voter registration, and the county clerk provide the group every assistance they can. Their support helped UT students win a second on-campus polling site in March of 2018. County officials even hold deputy registrar trainings on campus for the group’s organizers.
“The open communication that we have with their office and also with the county elections office is super helpful,” Phebillo says. “So, if something weird does happen at a polling location, I can email our county clerk and say, ‘Hey, I want you to know this happened,’ … and then the problem gets fixed immediately.”
Phebillo says the group hopes to work with other universities in the county to potentially facilitate a space for students from other campuses to vote at UT’s permanent polling spots. The idea is still in its beginning stages, Phebillo says, but with enough backing, could make a difference as mobile polling places are shuttered across the state. “We can certainly make our campus a more welcoming space to other college students if we can figure out how to get them to us,” she says.
Moreover, TX Votes is networking with universities and colleges in other states through a network of national organizations that provide funds, share information and help students develop their voter engagement plans. The network is already paying off, Phebillo says: A new student voter education group at the University of Oklahoma is adopting the TX Votes model.
“We’re incredibly effective at what we’re doing, … where we just understand the law incredibly well, make sure no one’s breaking it, and still find ways to turn out students to vote,” Phebillo says.
A robust student turnout could easily tip the scales in favor of Democrats in many close contests throughout the country, including in states like Texas where Republican control is beginning to erode. In the 2018 U.S. Senate race in Texas, Rep. Beto O’Rourke performed best in counties with a high percentage of young voters, whose turnout in the state tripled between 2014 and 2018. UT’s registration efforts could represent just the beginning of a student engagement model that could eventually help unseat entrenched Republican stalwarts like Sen. Ted Cruz, as O’Rourke’s close challenge shows.
Other close contests across the country could be determined by the population of a single college or university alone. Donald Trump carried the state of Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes; if more than 170,000 University of Wisconsin students voted en masse in 2020, they could make an election-deciding impact. North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper was elected in 2016 by about 10,000 votes in a state with nearly 500,000 undergraduates. New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan was likewise elected in 2016 by just 1,017 votes over her Republican rival, incumbent Kelly Ayotte.
High school students could also make a significant dent in such contests, but likewise find themselves locked out of the process: Texas doesn’t allow high school students to register to vote until two months before their 18th birthday, for instance, even though many other states allow students to preregister at 16 or 17, and vote in primaries if they turn 18 by Election Day. Moreover, while Texas law requires high school teachers to distribute voter registration forms to their students, that requirement is simply bypassed by most of the state’s secondary schools.
For advocates like Phebillo, the solution is simple, even if a state’s voting requirements are complex and difficult. “If we treated young people as the smart and driven individuals that many of them are, they wouldn’t kind of rebel against voting in the first place,” she said. “I like to think that we’re seeing that start to happen, where people are starting to give the voter back their agency in the process.”