Republican-controlled states target college students’ voting power ahead of high-stakes 2024 elections

By Fredreka Schouten

 Republican-controlled legislatures around the country have moved to erect new barriers to voting for high school and college students in what state lawmakers describe as an effort to clamp down on potential voter fraud. Critics call it a blatant attempt to suppress the youth vote as young people increasingly bolster Democratic candidates and liberal causes at the ballot box.

As turnout among young voters grows, new proposals that change photo ID requirements or impose other limits have emerged.

Laws enacted in Idaho this year, for instance, prohibit the use of student IDs to register to vote or cast ballots. A new law in Ohio, in effect for the first time in Tuesday’s primary elections, requires voters to present government-authorized photo ID at the polls, but student IDs are not included. Identification issued by universities has not traditionally been accepted to vote in the Buckeye State, but the new law eliminates the use of utility bills, bank statements and other documents that students have used before.

A proposal in Texas would eliminate all campus polling places in the state. Meanwhile, officials in Montana – where Democrat Jon Tester is seeking a fourth term in one of 2024’s highest-profile Senate contests – have appealed a court decision striking down additional document requirements for those using student IDs to vote.

And voting rights advocates say a longstanding statute in Georgia, which bars the use of student IDs from private universities, has made it more difficult for students at several schools – including Spelman and Morehouse, storied HBCUs in Atlanta – to participate in Georgia’s competitive US Senate and presidential elections.

“Republican legislatures … are pretty transparently trying to keep left-leaning groups from voting,” said Charlotte Hill, interim director of the Democracy Policy Initiative at UC-Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. Rather than trying to sway young voters, lawmakers seem willing “to shrink the eligible electorate,” she added.

Proponents say the changes are needed to protect against voter fraud and shore up public confidence in elections – battered by widespread, and false, claims of a stolen presidency in 2020. And they contend that the forms of identification provided by secondary schools and colleges vary too widely to serve as a reliable way to establish a voter’s identity and residency.

“They are issued by colleges, universities, public and private high schools, and some have address and pictures, while some do not,” Idaho state Sen. Scott Herndon, a Republican and one of the sponsors of the new law, said in an email to CNN.

During a legislative hearing earlier this year, Herndon said his goal was straightforward: “Make sure that people who are voting at the polls are who they say they are.”

Gains for Democrats

The efforts to clamp down on student IDs and campus voting come against a backdrop of gains for Democrats among this demographic group. Exit polls analyzed by the Brookings Institution found that people ages 18 to 29 – especially young women – made a pronounced shift toward Democrats in last year’s midterm elections, helping to blunt an expected “red wave” for Republicans.

And voter registration among 18-24 year-olds increased in several states last year over 2018 levels – including Kansas and Michigan, where voters decided on ballot measures on abortion, following the US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, according to data from Tufts University’s nonpartisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE. CIRCLE conducts research into youth civic engagement.

An analysis by The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that voting on college campuses soared in last month’s election for a state Supreme Court seat in Wisconsin. In that contest, the liberal candidate who prevailed, Janet Protasiewicz, had made protecting abortion rights a central feature of her campaign.

Among the voting wards in the city of Eau Claire, for instance, the highest turnout came from the ward that served several University of Wisconsin dorms – with nearly 900 votes cast, up from 150 in a Supreme Court race four years earlier, the paper found. Protasiewicz won 87% of those votes.

Prominent conservatives have spotlighted these voting trends.

“Young voters are the issue,” Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s former Republican governor, wrote in a widely noticed Twitter post following the state Supreme Court election. “It comes from years of radical indoctrination – on campus, in school, with social media, & throughout culture,” said Walker, who is president of Young America’s Foundation, which works to popularize conservative ideas among young people. “We have to counter it or conservatives will never win battleground states again.”

In an interview with CNN this week, Walker said his group is not seeking to change the ground rules for voting among younger Americans. But, he said, conservatives have been “overlooking ways to communicate to young people sooner than a month or two before the election.”

One longtime GOP lawyer has discussed ways to curtail youth voting.

The Washington Post, citing a PowerPoint presentation along with an audio recording of portions of the presentation obtained by liberal journalist Lauren Windsor, reported that GOP lawyer Cleta Mitchell recently urged Republicans to limit campus voting during a private gathering of Republican National Committee donors.

Mitchell, who tried to help former President Donald Trump overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia, did not respond to a CNN interview request through a spokesperson for her current organization.

Student IDs dropped in Idaho

In Idaho, notably, the number of young people ages 18 and 19 registered to vote soared 81% between the week of the midterm elections in November 2018 and the same time period in November 2022 – the highest gain in the nation – according to data collected by CIRCLE.

One of the new laws in the state, which will take effect in January, drops student IDs from the list of accepted identification to vote. Now only these forms of ID can be used: a driver’s license or ID issued by the state’s transportation department, a US passport or identification with a photo issued by the US government, tribal identification or a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

Student IDs had been accepted for voting for more than a decade in the state.

State Rep. Tina Lambert, who authored the House version of the bill, declined a CNN interview request, citing a busy schedule.

But she said in an email that students should be able to navigate the new law. “Students of voting age are smart and able,” Lambert wrote. “They are able to get the ID needed to vote. Most of them have IDs already, that they use for all the other things that they need legal ID for.”

The law also has the support of Idaho Republican Secretary of State Phil McGrane, who told legislators this year that the change would help “maintain confidence in our elections” – although he said that he doesn’t know of any “instances of students trying to commit voter fraud.”

He also noted that student identification was rarely used. Just 104 of the nearly 600,000 voters who cast ballots in Idaho’s general election last year did so using student ID, McGrane said.

“Even if one person out there can only use a student ID to vote, that still matters. That’s still a vote,” said Saumya Sarin, a freshman at the College of Idaho in Caldwell, Idaho, and a volunteer with Babe Vote, a nonpartisan group that has worked to boost youth voter registration in the state. She testified against the proposal in the state legislature earlier this year.

Sarlin, who turns 19 this week, said she presented a US passport last year when she voted for the first time, but she noted that she had “several friends off the top of my head” who don’t have the forms of identification now required in Idaho.

“I think the direction that the youth are going with their vote scares the people who are currently in power a little bit because it works against them,” she said.

Sarlin said she’s become active on voting issues to take a stand against state policies she opposes, including Idaho’s limits on gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth and abortions. Idaho has a near-total ban on abortions and last month made it a crime to help a pregnant minor obtain an abortion in another state without parental consent.

Babe Vote and the League of Women Voters of Idaho have filed a lawsuit in an effort to block the Idaho voter ID laws. The measures “were not driven by any legitimate or credible concerns about the ‘integrity’ of the state’s elections,” the groups argue in their civil complaint. “Instead, they are part of a broader effort to roll back voting rights, particularly for young voters by weaponizing imaginary threats to election integrity.”

separate lawsuit, brought by March for Our Lives Idaho and the Idaho Alliance for Retired Americans, in federal court also seeks to block the new laws.

Not all proposals to restrict student voting have been successful to date.

bill introduced in February by GOP state Rep. Carrie Isaac in Texas to prohibit polling places on college campuses has not yet made it out of committee. Another Isaac bill would ban voting on K-12 campuses.

She told CNN this week that the measures are needed because polling places are sites of raw emotions and high stress, and she doesn’t want that kind of environment in schools.

“I don’t think it’s smart to invite people that would not otherwise have business on campus on our campuses,” Isaac said. “In Texas, we have two weeks of early voting that people are coming in, that would not otherwise be there. And I think we should do anything and everything to make our campuses as safe as possible.”

She said she’s confident that college students can find ways to vote off-campus.

Battlegrounds Georgia and Ohio

In Georgia, a state that will be a key battleground in the 2024 White House contest, student IDs are accepted as a form of voter identification, but only if they are issued by public colleges in the state. Seven out of the 10 Historically Black Colleges and Universities Georgia are private, making it more difficult for students who attend those universities to cast their ballots, voting rights advocates say.

Former state Sen. Cecil Staton, a Republican who sponsored the 2006 photo ID law, said the government can ensure consistent standards for student IDs at state schools. “We didn’t feel like we had that same ability with private schools,” he said.

Aylon Gipson – a Morehouse student from Alabama and a fellow with the voting rights group Campus Vote Project – said he has a lot of friends who have had problems at the polls as a result of Georgia’s law, especially underclassmen who don’t have a driver’s license.

“I’ve seen specific instances where students will call me and say, ‘Hey, I tried to go in and vote, but I got turned around at this polling station,’ or specifically our on-campus polling station, because they didn’t have an ID or they didn’t have a valid license to be able to vote with,” Gipson said. “I think it’s disenfranchising students who attend these HBCUs simply because of the fact that we’re private.”

And in Ohio, which will see a hotly contested US Senate race next year as Democrat Sherrod Brown seeks reelection in a state where the GOP controls the legislature and governor’s office, Tuesday’s primary election marks the first election with the new photo ID rules in place. Voting rights advocates say the new restrictions could spell problems for students who have moved to Ohio for college and are no longer allowed to provide dormitory, utility bills or other documents to establish their legal residency when voting.

Getting the form of ID now required in Ohio, such as a state driver’s license, will invalidate identification students may possess from their home state.

“It seems as if this specific group – out-of-state college students, who have every right to vote – have been targeted and singled out,” said Collin Marozzi, deputy policy director of the ACLU of Ohio.

Legislators, he said, are sending a “poor signal to these college students: ‘We want your money for our colleges. We want your money for our economy. But we don’t really want you to have a voice in the future of this state.’ “

Students in Ohio still can opt to vote absentee by mail if they don’t want to surrender their identification from the state where they used to live – provided they include the last four digits of their Social Security number on the application. (The law establishing new photo ID requirements also reduces the window to request and return absentee ballots.)

“For that college student, they make a decision: Am I a voter in Ohio or, say, in Pennsylvania?” said Rob Nichols, a spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican. “If you want to hang on to your Pennsylvania license, you can do so, vote absentee, give the last four digits of your Social, and you are on your merry way.”