Conservatives Take Aim at Young Voters in 2012 Battleground States


The right wing may be grabbing headlines for its audacious assault on organized labor and reproductive rights, but less well-reported have been their equally destructive attacks against another familiar target: young voters.

In addition to continuing the push for disenfranchising voter ID legislation, conservatives have been pulling a panoply of other tricks out of their bag to increase the barriers to voting for youth. Though the right wing claims that these efforts will decrease voter “fraud” – instances of which are so rare that one is more likely to be struck by lightning – it’s no coincidence that they are waging the fiercest of these battles in states that are also the likeliest battleground states in 2012, where suppressing the youth vote could have a dramatic impact. That the pro-corporate, right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is the inspiration for many of the most draconian bills only reinforces the fact that these efforts are purely political – their ultimate intent being to give the electoral edge to their preferred candidates.

Though photo ID legislation as it's usually written is disenfranchising enough for youth, minority, low-income, and elderly voters, Wisconsin lawmakers have taken a page straight out of ALEC’s playbook and proposed a law that would ban students from using in-state school-issued IDs as proof of residency when voting. If passed, the law would be one of the most stringent voter ID laws in the country. An investigation published this week by Campus Progress uncovered incriminating links between the Wisconsin bill – and other pending voter ID legislation – and ALEC. According to Campus Progress:

Out of the eight states that have legislators currently listed as members of the ALEC Public Safety and Elections task force, five are either considering or already have laws that were graded harmful to student voting. New Hampshire and Wisconsin, the two states currently considering the most extreme version of the law, both have ALEC members represented on the committees. And in Wisconsin, that member is Rep. Scott Suder (R-District 69), the state’s Majority Leader, who ushered the legislation through the Wisconsin Assembly.

All in all, 32 states are considering bills to add a photo ID or proof of citizenship requirement when registering to vote. But conservatives are not stopping at voter ID requirements. As Fair Elections Legal Network (FELN) and Campus Progress report, over the past six years, seven states have enacted laws that disenfranchise students or make it more difficult for them to vote – and 2011 has started with a worrying bang. Eighteen states are are already considering similar laws targeting youth voters, from requiring in-state driver's licenses at the polls and banning school IDs from the list of accepted IDs, to prohibiting first-time voters from voting by absentee ballots. Other tactics include:

  • Residency requirements for student voters: In New Hampshire, conservative legislators are not even bothering to hide their disdain for youth voters. According to State House Speaker William O’Brien, students lack “life experience,” are “foolish,” and “they just vote their feelings.” HB 176 would only allow students to vote in their college towns if they or their parents had previously established permanent residency there.
  • Repealing same day registration (SDR): New Hampshire is also considering repealing its Election Day registration system, which has been in place since 1994 and increases turnout by about 14 points on average. Speaker O'Brien has justified this effort by alleging that it unleashes swarms of students on polling places, creating opportunities for fraud. Generally, SDR benefits youth who tend to move frequently, making it difficult for them to keep their voter registrations current otherwise. Similar bills are being debated in Maine and Wisconsin, and North Carolina is also expecting a challenge to the SDR law it passed in 2007.

It's no coincidence that several of the states struggling to defeat these measures are states that are expected to be battlegrounds in the 2012 presidential election – namely, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and North Carolina.

In North Carolina, for example, Demos reports that 253,000 individuals used SDR in the run-up to the 2008 elections, 105,000 of whom were first-time voters in their counties. Turnout increased 8% over the 2004 elections, the greatest presidential vote increase in the nation. During the 2008 presidential elections, 59% of young voters whose home states offered SDR voted, nine percentage points higher than those who did not live in SDR states. In Iowa alone, young voters comprised 35% of voters using SDR that year.

The North Carolina State Board of Elections found that the voter ID legislation being considered there would cause problems for more than 556,000 voters with no record of an ID issued by the DMV. Furthermore, a study shows that the voter ID bill in Wisconsin would make it more difficult for more than 120,000 people to vote, including 60,000 out-of-state students.

As the right wing ramps up efforts to blatantly restrict access to voting for key progressive constituencies like young voters, it’s important to keep in mind the historic impact that the youth vote had on the 2008 presidential elections. Not only did 2 million more young voters turn out in 2008 than in 2004 but the result was the highest share of the youth vote obtained by any single candidate since exit polls began reporting results by age in 1976. In particular, young African Americans posted the highest turnout ever observed for any racial or ethnic group of young voters since 1972, when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. Even among young voters, African American youth boasted the highest turnout – nearly six out of ten African Americans age 18-24 voted in the 2008 elections.

This evidence from 2008 clearly points to why conservatives would want to gain a political advantage in 2012 through attempts to decrease the youth vote. Instead of working together on reforms to modernize our elections or to strengthen our democracy by encouraging the continued participation of a new generation of voters, the right wing is using mythical claims of voter “fraud” as an excuse to legislate a partisan power grab in the states.

Full Resources from this Article

Conservatives Take Aim at Young Voters in 2012 Battleground States

Campus Progress – Conservative Corporate Advocacy Group ALEC Behind Voter Disenfranchisement Efforts
Yahoo! News – Ahead of the 2012 campaign, states debate voting rights
Washington Post – In states, parties clash over voting laws that would affect college students, others
Demos – Misplaced Priorities: Voter ID in Wisconsin
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement - The Youth Vote in 2008

This article is part of PSN's email newsletter, The Stateside Dispatch.
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