When he prepares to cast his vote in his first-ever presidential election on Tuesday, Noah Foster, 20, a junior at Carroll University in Wisconsin, will go through a mental checklist:
Specialized school ID. Check.
Proof of enrollment. Check.
Proof of residency. Check.
Ride to the polling site. Check.
“It’s exhausting, for sure,” said Foster, who plans to vote for Democratic challenger Joe Biden in the presidential election. “These are the little issues we run into that makes the process so hard.”
From pandemic fears to complex ID requirements to lack of nearby polling places, young voters in the presidential election are facing an unprecedented array of obstacles, activists and voters said.
The barriers – some unintentional, others allegedly by design – have sparked a wave of lawsuits from New York to Texas to try to ease access to the polls for young and first-time voters.
Despite the obstacles, youth voter enthusiasm is reaching historic highs and is expected to play a key role in the presidential election. As of Oct. 23, more than 5 million young people (ages 18-29) had voted early or absentee in the 2020 elections, including nearly 3 million in key battleground states, eclipsing 2016 early voting totals for that age group, according to statistics compiled by the CIRCLE research center at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
Still, voting rights advocates point to efforts across the United States to suppress the youth vote, including:
Issues such as these paired with concerns over COVID-19 are creating anxiety among young voters and may prevent many from voting, said Brianna Cea, chief executive and founder of Generation Vote, a progressive youth-led organization dedicated to advancing youth voting rights.
“Even before the pandemic, there had been efforts to suppress the youth vote,” she said. “The pandemic amplified a lot of those issues.”
Many of the laws targeting young voters emerged after the 2018 midterm elections, when young voters made a surprisingly robust showing at the polls, Cea said. Turnout rates for millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) soared from 22% in the 2014 midterm elections to 42% in the 2018 contests, according to the Pew Research Center. In that election, 26 million millennials cast their vote – or nearly one-fifth of all votes.
States with Republican-led legislatures, such as Texas and Wisconsin, pushed the new laws out to try to stem the growing voting muscle of younger voters, who strongly lean Democratic, Cea said. Students are energized this year by issues such as climate change, the presidency of Donald Trump and criminal justice reform in the wake of the death of George Floyd while in police custody.
“I’m feeling super-optimistic,” said Cea, 23. “By making our voices heard, it will send a message to those in power: We’re not going anywhere, and we’ll continue raising hell about it.”
In Texas, voters can use a concealed-handgun license as ID at a polling site but not a student ID – a direct impediment to student voting, said Drew Galloway, executive director of MOVE Texas, a nonpartisan youth empowerment and registration group. His group has filed several lawsuits in the state for issues ranging from making mail-in ballots less cumbersome to forcing counties to open more polling locations.
Texas leaders say the measures were put in place to prevent voter fraud, though there has been little evidence of widespread fraud in the state.
“Safeguarding the integrity of our elections is a primary function of state government and is one of my top priorities as attorney general,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton says on his website.
Obstacles aside, Galloway said he’s seeing an unmatched enthusiasm among young voters this year. Despite a pandemic that kept many students indoors through the summer, his group registered more than 55,000 new voters this year, up from 24,000 last year. Also: Hundreds of volunteers have flooded his office to help with registering or poll monitoring – a first for his organization, he said.
“It’s really, really exciting the number of young people who have turned out in this election so far,” Galloway said.
For Rica Llagas, 20, a junior at Texas State University in San Marcos, it wasn’t a lack of nearby polling sites or ID issues that made her hesitant to vote – it was the specter of being infected by the coronavirus. Llagas, who has a kidney disease and is immunocompromised, was wary of waiting in long lines at the one polling site nearest to her. Under Texas law, absentee ballots are accessible only to voters 65 years or older, who are disabled or in jail or who will be out of the county on Election Day.
Llagas went to her polling site late in the afternoon on Oct. 14, when fewer students would be around, and cast her vote for Biden. Besides the presidential race, Llagas said she was motivated by down-ballot races like city commissioner and school board.
“It’s really been an increase in anxiety,” she said. “I was very nervous about in-person voting.”
Evan Clement, a 20-year-old sophomore at Binghamton University in New York, encountered lines more than two hours long at the early voting polling site closest to his off-campus apartment. The long lines are a major deterrent: Students whose schedules are crammed with classes and study sessions won’t typically wait in hours-long lines, he said.
Earlier this year, Clement gathered 1,300 signatures on a petition to have classes canceled on Election Day. University administrators told him it was too late to cancel classes this year but they would consider cancelling them for the 2024 presidential election. A New York election law that allows residents to take up to two hours off from work to vote doesn’t apply to students, he said.
His efforts revealed to him that voter suppression exists not just in red states but also in blue states like New York, he said.
Clement voted Wednesday for Biden, despite the long lines. But he’s not so sure about his fellow students.
“There are institutional barriers that have been there for so long they’re preventing young people from voting,” he said. “That’s what we’re fighting to change.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.