Young voting advocates take up the fight against suppression

When Katherine West, a political science major at Furman University, attempted to mail her ballot for the 2018 midterm election in her school’s state of South Carolina, she got back a questionnaire from the county asking her to prove her residency. West discovered no other county in the state had this requirement.

West, along with two other students, successfully sued the Greenville County Board of Voter Registration and Elections, stating the county failed to treat voters (including students) equally. Her victory not only allowed her to freely exercise her right to vote, it became a catalyst for voting advocacy. “It didn’t light the fire, but it grew the passion that was already inside of me,” she said. West and her peers were able to register to vote, although it was only a few days before the deadline.

West, who was a sophomore at the time of the lawsuit, is part of a new generation of voting rights advocates contending with an intensifying wave of voter suppression efforts in dozens of states. The Pew Research Center reports one in ten eligible voters will be from Generation Z, aged 18 to 23. However restrictive and confusing voter ID laws mixed with a learning curve for absentee and mail-in ballots has made voting seem an insurmountable task for new voters. That knowledge gap is where advocacy groups and advocates like former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams come into play.

Abrams lost to former Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp last November by just 55,000 votes in an election where 1.4 million voter registrations were canceled before the vote and more than 53,000 registrations were moved to “pending” status due to a disputed exact match verification process. Since November, Abrams has been working to raise awareness of these and other efforts of voter disenfranchisement across the country. Two weeks ago, she officially  launched a new voting rights initiative, Fair Fight 2020, that aims to push back in 20 of those states.

“In 2016, millennials made up 27% of the eligible voting population, but only 51% of this voting bloc ended up voting,” Abrams told Teen Vogue in 2018. With Fair Fight, Abrams hopes to challenge states with laws that disenfranchise people of color, young voters, and those with socioeconomic barriers to voting.

States such as New Hampshire, Tennessee and Georgia have enacted laws that make it difficult for young voters to register. In New Hampshire, similar to West’s Greenville County law, students have to prove their residency by registering for a New Hampshire driver’s license. Tennessee does not recognize student IDs as valid cards to register, but other forms of photo ID such as expired gun permits are accepted.

Low turnout among college-aged voters is usually attributed to apathy, but organizations that work with them disagree. They posit the real reason college-aged voters don’t come to the polls is lack of education about voting laws, not because they are indifferent.

“When given the information, and empowerment, to make their voice heard, young people will absolutely show and make our democracy stronger,” said Spencer Dixon, Civic Engagement Manager at the non-profit organization Young Invincibles. The organization advocates for young people on issues including voting policy, healthcare and higher education.

For Melissa Wyatt, Civic Technology Program Manager at Rock The Vote, the process itself has become an obstacle for voters. “[I]t’s just the barriers and the confusion and misinformation that’s introduced in the process that really discourages young people from participating,” she said. Because of the perceived difficulty of voting, college-aged voters avoid the issue rather than sit down and attempt to learn it.

Misinformation can manifest in a number of ways. On Rock The Vote’s website, frequently asked questions include what to do if a student’s moved to a new state, what a voter card is, and how to obtain an absentee ballot. Wyatt also mentioned some students are even afraid of registering to vote in another state affecting their financial aid. Each state has different voting laws, which can be overwhelming to college-aged first-time voters who may have little to no guidance from their parents.

“We have people that have been voting 25 years looking down upon 18-year-olds, who are not being taught to vote that live three hours away from their home, ” said Rachel Clay, Southeast Regional Coordinator from the Campus Vote Project. “I think it’s insane,” she said. To Clay, young voters’ knowledge of voting is a reflection of the older voters who are supposed to teach them.

When Miami Dade College sophomore Rebecca Diaz attended the Andrew Goodman Foundation’s yearly summit, where she learned about low turnout among young voters, and how important it is for them to vote. The Foundation focuses on voting advocacy, particularly with young voters. “The youth vote isn’t as powerful as it could and should be,” Diaz said.

The Brennan Center For Justice reports the 2018 midterm elections featured a surge in young voter midterm participation with 31 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 turning out, in comparison to 21 percent in 2014. The upcoming 2020 election will feature a sitting president with divisive opinions, meaning a possible increase in voting from both parties.

In 2018, when Florida ruled that campuses could serve as early voting sites, Diaz urged election officials at a budget meeting to place polling places at Miami Dade College. By Election Day, 11 Florida schools had voting sites, include two Miami Dade campuses. The school is the largest community college in the U.S. with an extremely diverse student body.

To encourage her classmates to register, Diaz tried to “make voting fun.” She, along with other students in her campus student voting group, hosted registration drives like “Drag to the Polls” featuring drag queens, “Don’t Cast A Zombie Vote” where actors dressed up as zombies to educate students, and a “Dogs For Democracy” event. Despite her efforts, Diaz says reaching students at the college level isn’t enough.

“College level is almost too late. Most of the students at Miami Dade had two jobs, had to take the bus, etc,” Diaz said. “When you institute civic engagement in high schools, like math, it becomes ingrained. You should be able to sit down at 16 with your family and talk about why you’d vote a certain way.”

Through her work with the Andrew Goodman Foundation, Diaz found the Young Invincibles, which, through policy and groundwork, advocates for young adults aged 18 to 34. The organization wants young adults to know “voting is easy. Voting is accessible, you just have to know the different laws in your state and the process of registering,” said Dixon.

While at Furman, Katherine West joined Dins Vote, a student voting organization founded by political science professor David Fleming and named for the school’s mascot, The Paladin.. Fleming wants to inspire Furman’s students to register to vote, much like the lawsuit did.

“Just the attention from the lawsuit had increased students’ interest,” Fleming said. There’s still work to be done on Furman’s campus too, since student IDs are not valid registration IDs in South Carolina, and since Furman is a small school, Fleming said they are often overlooked by local candidates.

West, who recently graduated, is heading to law school in Ohio. When she looks back at her time at school, and her memories of the lawsuit, she recalls watching the League of Women Voters at work, one of the groups who helped fight for their lawsuit. “I recognized just how much we could impact things as young adults,” West said. “I saw a lot of myself and my friends in them. It’s really neat of them to pass the torch to us.”