CHICAGO — Gone are the days when young voters weren’t taken seriously. In 2008, they helped propel Barack Obama into the Oval Office, supporting him by a 2-1 margin.
But that higher profile also has landed them in the middle of the debate over some state laws that regulate voter registration and how people identify themselves at the polls.
Since the last election, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Wisconsin and Texas and other states have tried to limit or ban the use of student IDs as voter identification. In Florida, lawmakers tried to limit “third-party” organizations, including student groups, from registering new voters.
Proponents of voter-ID and registration laws say the laws are intended to combat voter fraud. The intent, they say, is to make sure people who are voting are who they say they are and have the right to vote.
“In this day and age, nothing could be more rational than requiring a photo ID when voters come to the polls,” Pennsylvania’s senior deputy attorney general, Patrick Cawley, said recently when defending the state’s new law in court.
Others see these efforts as attempts to squelch the aspirations of the budding young voting bloc and other groups, and they’re using that claim to try to get more young people fired up.
“You think your vote doesn’t matter? Then why are they trying so hard to take it away from you?” asks Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, a group that works to register young voters. “It does demonstrate the power they have.”
In Florida, Rock the Vote joined with the League of Women Voters to challenge restrictions on “third-party” voter registration. A federal judge said last spring that many of the restrictions made it too difficult for legitimate voter-registration organizations to do their work. During the fight, students at the University of Central Florida placed ironing boards around campus, a symbol that they were “pressing the issue.”
Now, while most college campuses are relatively quiet, some of those students have taken it upon themselves to register their peers during freshman orientation this summer.
“We feel like it’s up to us,” says Anna Eskamani, a 22-year-old graduate student and a leader at the Florida school.
Last year in Maine, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union criticized Secretary of State Charlie Summers after he sent letters to out-of-state students at four universities telling them they needed to register their vehicles in Maine and get driver’s licenses there if they wanted to continue voting in the state.
The U.S. Supreme Court has sided with students on this issue and their ability to vote where they attend school, even when they’ve come from another state.
Right now, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Indiana and Georgia are among states with voter ID requirements in place. Tennessee is the only state that bans use of any student ID. Others limit use to state institutions and/or require proof that the ID is valid, such as the expiration date.