Young Activists Mobilize Against ID Law
Opponents of Indiana's law requiring voter identification at the polls usually argue it places an unfair burden on the poor, the elderly, minorities, inner-city residents and the disabled.
But some activists predict another group will be affected in November: young people and college students.
A coalition of youth groups including Rock the Vote and the National Black Law Students Association filed an amicus brief to the Indiana state Democratic Party lawsuit urging the Supreme Court to find the law unconstitutional.
"The Indiana case has far-reaching consequences for students and other young people who move frequently, making current ID hard to come by, or who do not possess a driver's license," wrote Alexandra Acker, executive director of the Young Democrats of America.
"It's not something that at face value people think is overtly discriminatory," says Matthew Segal, founder of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment, which also signed the amicus brief, and a senior at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. "They don't understand the millions of Americans who are poor and don't have a driver's license."
Young people are more likely to fall into that license-less category. "A lot of young people don't have driver's licenses," said Tova Andrea Wang, Democracy Fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive institution. "I myself didn't have one until my late twenties, because I grew up in Manhattan."
Wang added: "It's also pretty racially skewed. Young blacks have ID even less." For instance, in Milwaukee County, Wis., 74 percent of African Americans and 66 percent of Hispanics aged 18 to 24 did not have a valid driver's license.
But even young people with driver's licenses may face barriers. Students who leave their state to attend college do not always update their license to reflect their school address. "Registered young voters can't vote because they have an out-of-state driver's license," said Indiana Young Democrats president Jason Tomsci, 25. "The law definitely puts out of state students at a disadvantage," he said.
Out-of-state students in Ohio face the same barrier. Segal has had his ability to vote called into question by a new law there. "My driver's license is from Illinois and I'm not going to change it for a variety of reasons," Segal explained. "There's no form of photo ID that I, or most out-of-state students, have that shows I live in Ohio."
Students like Segal are often afraid to change their license to the state where they attend school because of potential financial penalties, such as complications with their health insurance coverage through their parents, or a risk of losing scholarship money from their home state.
So Segal, who has been voting in Ohio since his freshman year at Kenyon, had to cast a provisional ballot for the first time, when he voted in November 2007 local elections. "Basically every out-of-state student voted provisionally," said Segal. "You're never notified if that vote is counted."
While nonpartisan youth mobilization groups and college Democrats oppose the Indiana law, the College Republicans support it, on the grounds that it will prevent voter fraud. "Voters in Indiana, and across the United States, should not be disenfranchised by people attempting to vote illegally, and that's exactly what ID laws aim to achieve," wrote Ethan Eilon, executive director of the College Republican National Committee, in an email.
Eilon does not think that eligible students will be disenfranchised as a consequence. "Any Indiana student can get an Indiana ID by showing a photo id, or a birth certificate and some evidence of residency like a utility bill," he noted.
Democrats and voting rights advocates suggest that laws like Indiana's are passed by Republican state legislatures to gain partisan advantage, since the groups at risk of being disenfranchised all skew Democratic. But conservative jurists, such as Judge Richard A. Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, have found that such laws are not unconstitutional merely because of a partisan outcome.
Critics of the law also question their necessity, pointing out that there has never been a documented case of in-person voter fraud in Indiana. A November study from the nonpartisan research institution Demos found that provable instances in other states of voter fraud were very rare.
But many Republicans and conservatives argue that laws such as Indiana's are needed to prevent ineligible people from voting.
"Detecting specific cases of voter fraud is very difficult to do," said David Muhlhausen, senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."
Muhlhausen said that he doesn't think getting a new state ID places an unreasonable burden on young voters. "Part of being an adult is voting and in some states you'll need to have a proper ID. Join the community of adults, dude," he said.
But critics of ID laws, such as Tomsci, contend that for college freshmen who may have left birth certificates and Social Security cards with their parents, getting a new driver's license is more easily said than done. "You have to provide a lot of documentation to get a state ID and a lot of students aren't going to have that readily available," he said.
Muhlhausen is also unsympathetic to a predicament like Segal's, saying, "It sounds like he shouldn't be able to vote in Ohio because he isn't a resident of that state."
Ohio students without an Ohio state-issued ID can vote if they present a local utility bill. But some students who live on campus do not pay utilities directly.
Segal says that although his organization opposes any ID requirement, it is advocating compromise legislation that would expand the spectrum of permissible IDs to include things such as school identification cards and pieces of mail that a student in a dorm would receive.
The Supreme Court on Jan. 9 appeared likely to uphold Indiana's law. Supreme Court reporters said it appeared from the questions asked during oral arguments that the conservative majority will likely vote to uphold the law when the court rules on it later this year.
Tomsci said the Indiana Young Democrats will work with Indiana public universities to ensure that their school IDs meet the legal requirements. But, he laments, "Kids at private universities are still going to get shut out."
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