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Voter Suppression Laws Are Targeting Youth — But They Are Fighting Back

Youth voting blocs are so powerful that most schools have enough students to easily tip an election in key states.

A woman stands against a fence before Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks at a campaign event at Atlanta University Center Consortium Campus on Election Day, November 8, 2022, in Atlanta, Georgia.

On January 6, 2023, Ohio passed what’s considered the most restrictive voting law of the last decade. Ohio’s House Bill 458, signed by Gov. Mike DeWine, eliminates a day of early voting, shortens the deadline to apply for and return mail ballots and limits counties to just a single drop box regardless of their population size, among other provisions. Most starkly, the bill limits voters to showing only four specific kinds of photo ID in order to vote: an Ohio driver’s license, passport, military ID or government ID. Before this, Ohio voters had been able to show an alternative form of ID such as a utility bill, bank statement or a paycheck. Numerous advocacy groups have condemned the new law, which they stress will further deter voting among trans people, low-income individuals and those who may have suspended licenses due to debt, unpaid fines, court costs or lack of insurance.

Following the bill’s passage, the Elias Law Group filed a lawsuit against Ohio’s secretary of state, with other plaintiffs in the suit including the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, Ohio Federation of Teachers, Ohio Alliance for Retired Americans, Union Veterans Council and Civic Influencers, Inc.

Civic Influencers is a national data-driven, nonpartisan organization whose mission is to increase youth voting and civic power by centering Black, Indigenous and youth of color (BIYOC) mobilization. In a recent statement, the organization stressed the immeasurable impact this restriction would have: “If allowed to go into effect, each of these new provisions will make it more difficult — if not impossible — for Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, Disabled youth of color in Ohio to cast votes and to have those votes counted.”

“Across the country, voter suppression laws are running rampant,” Civic Influencers CEO Maxim Thorne tells Truthout. Thorne asserts such laws emerge from an understanding that young voters have a strong propensity to swing elections. “There are 8.6 million new voters who turn 18 every election cycle, and young people ages 18-29 are now the largest voting bloc in the country. Most schools have enough students to easily tip an election in key states — sometimes, just the population of one university shuttling to a polling site would be enough to flip elections by a large margin.”

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, in 2022 alone, 408 bills were introduced across 39 states which were designed to restrict access to voting, with eight states enacting 11 total restrictive voting laws. So far in 2023, the Brennan Center reports that 32 states have introduced 150 restrictive voting laws. Of these restrictive measures, the Voting Rights Alliance counts 61 forms of voter suppression, some of which particularly impact young people. This includes prohibiting student IDs as viable voting ID, refusing to place polling sites on campuses, gerrymandering Black and Indigenous educational institutions and shortening mail-in ballot deadlines.

For instance, in states like Texas, students are barred from registering to vote until two months before their 18th birthday. Meanwhile, in Tennessee, out-of-state driver’s licenses are not considered valid voting identification. In Wisconsin, student IDs must fit particular criteria in order to be considered viable for voting, with students at UW-Madison successfully mobilizing to have their school print separate voter ID cards for students upon request. On top of this, students are required to bring proof of on- or off-campus residency with them to the polls. Other states that don’t accept student IDs at the poll include Tennessee, Texas, Arizona, North Dakota, Iowa, South Carolina and of course Ohio.

In some jurisdictions, legislators are working to gerrymander universities, particularly historically Black colleges and universities, in order to dilute the student vote. Aigne Taylor, a youth activist with Civic Influencers and recent graduate of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, stresses that the gerrymandering of her own college is what propelled her into student organizing against voting restrictions. As a result of the Supreme Court’s Rucho v. Common Cause ruling, which declared that the Supreme Court could not set a precedent against partisan gerrymandering, the university was split in 2019 into two districts which are both represented by Republicans. “Our campus has a long history of student activism and organizing, and we have a large voting bloc of young Black students,” Taylor emphasizes, “and legislators know that.” As a result of the gerrymandering, upperclassmen on the east side of campus were allowed to cast ballots on campus in an academic classroom building. However, underclassmen residing on the south side of campus were required by their district to go off-campus to vote at a polling site miles away. “It’s so problematic because the freshman and sophomores don’t usually have cars or the funds to pay for an Uber. They don’t understand the public transportation system in Greensboro or aren’t familiar with the area. And those that decide to go only have limited time between classes, meetings, work, and then the length of time it takes to get to this [remote] polling site,” Taylor told Truthout. “It’s just barrier after barrier after barrier.”

Despite all of these voting restrictions impacting youth, Thorne declares that they still turn out in record numbers, citing the 2022 midterms, when an estimated 27 percent of youth aged 18-29 voted, making the midterm the second-highest youth voter turnout in almost three decades. “Now imagine,” Thorne says, “if every young person had the resources and the access to go out and vote.”

Tipping Point Index

Equipping and empowering young voters was Civic Influencers’s goal in 2021 when it launched a major research initiative now referred to as the Tipping Point Index (TPI). The TPI is a nationwide map which scores over 400 institutions “where [voting-age] youth congregate,” including colleges, universities, technical schools, trade schools, vocational schools and community colleges. The map also serves as a manifestation of the political dynamics of each state and how these dynamics shape BIYOC-restrictive voting laws.

The idea for the TPI map emerged from Thorne’s prior work as the CEO of the Human Rights Campaign, which developed the Equality Index to score schools, businesses, and other institutions to determine whether they were safe places for LGBTQ+ people to attend. “This kind of data and analysis is so useful,” Thorne says.

Not only does the Tipping Point Index reveal how many votes were needed to sway an election relative to the number of students and student institutions within those states, but it also scores these institutions based on what resources they have available for students to vote easily. Most importantly, the map takes into account the specific context of the state and district these institutions reside in and determines what resources, if any, can be organized for students to vote in accordance with the voting laws in their area. “We would send emails to the institutions with specific instructions on how to make voting easier for students, especially if they scored lower,” Thorne says. The Civic Influencers team could make suggestions to schools like to contact the board of elections for a campus polling site, make election day a holiday, establish a university-wide coalition of campus organizations to shuttle to polls, get administration to print new IDs that were compliant with state law, and more.

Art schools are consistently among the institutions with the highest scores; larger and wealthier universities like Yale and Northwestern sit at the top of the list. On the other hand, the institutions with the lowest scores are persistently community colleges, with 50 percent of community colleges having the lowest possible scores. “Not because they’re hostile or fascists,” Thorne notes, “but because they have absolutely no resources.” In fact, community colleges — where 33 percent of young people in the U.S. are educated — are often underfunded and neglected by their respective states. Whereas larger institutions often have a president, deans and a large faculty for responsibilities to be properly delegated. “Oftentimes, the president of a community college handles everything. Now, it’s much harder to tell them, ‘You can apply to the Board of Elections for a polling site!’” Thorne emphasizes. But targeting these schools and granting them the resources they need to make voting easy is crucial. “This is predominantly where young people of color and lower-income people get educated, and it’s clear that these barriers are set up to prevent them from being able to vote.”

To help these schools get the proper resources they need, Civic Influencers expanded its budget to work with lower-scoring institutions. The organization funds faculty and administrators who want to expand voting access on their campuses, gives stipends to student organizers and even provides grants to the institution itself that is used specifically for “civic engagement” purposes. Such grants are used for student organizers to rent rooms for meetings, organize shuttles to polling sites and bring in political candidates and other speakers.

Thorne hopes that by granting institutions funding and resources to expand voting access for youth, young people will be empowered to vote and reclaim the civic rights that are being stripped from them. “There is so much power in voting, and for youth, there is an extraordinary commitment to voting.”

Taylor reiterates her own commitment to voting, and qualifies that this commitment must always be accompanied by grassroots organizing, political education and policy building. “Voting is so crucial, but we also have to continuously reenvision what a new system could look like and work together to build it. It won’t happen overnight, but I think we’re getting there.”

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