First they were supposed to vote early -- in a nightclub. Then students, employees, and faculty at North Carolina's Appalachian State University were supposed to vote early a mile from the farthest edge of campus, in a county building that had little parking. Then, after students filed a lawsuit, a state judge intervened, saying that the county board of election's decision to end early voting in the on-campus student union -- after eight years of allowing it -- could have no purpose but to disenfranchise students and was unconstitutional. That decision, however, was not the final word. It was put on hold by an appeals court, and then the North Carolina Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
By that time, the Watauga County Board of Elections had decided to restore on-campus early voting -- a practice it had eliminated by a partisan vote pushed by the board's Republican majority. Appalachian State is the largest employer in Watauga County, and its students make up roughly 40 percent of the county's population, but their preference for Democratic candidates does not jibe with the rest of the county's Republican tilt. In 2012, about 35 percent of the county's early votes were cast at the Appalachian State student union.
But after all the chaos, it turns out that Appalachian State students are the lucky ones: They are some of the only students in North Carolina who will be able to vote early on campus this year. Early voting sites have been eliminated on college campuses across North Carolina and the South, part of a broader effort by local elections officials and state lawmakers to erect new barriers to voting. The new policies, which run the gamut from shortened early voting periods to strict voter ID requirements, disproportionately affect young voters -- and especially youth of color.
"If you look at what young voters did in this state [North Carolina] in 2008 and 2012, it's impossible to not conclude they mattered a lot," said Allison Riggs of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, one of the law groups representing plaintiffs in a challenge to a restrictive election law the North Carolina legislature passed last year. "When young voters turn out a lot it can be dangerous to entrenched power, so they're seen as threatening."
After Republican takeovers in statehouses across the country and the South in 2010, many states enacted new restrictions on voters. And the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder last year striking a key provision of the Voting Rights Act freed many states with histories of discriminatory voting practices to pass and enforce new laws without approval by the federal government. Four Southern states -- Texas, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama -- used the new lack of federal oversight to enact restrictive voting laws that disproportionately affect young and minority voters. A group of young voters are challenging North Carolina's law on the basis that it abridges their right to vote in violation of the Constitutional guarantee that all 18 year-olds can vote -- the first time voters have challenged a voting law on age discrimination grounds.
Virginia is implementing its voter ID law for the first time this fall -- as are Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. Voter ID requirements can also disproportionately affect young voters since the laws in some states like Texas do not allow the use of student IDs, even if issued by public universities. (North Carolina will begin enforcing a voter ID requirement that excludes student IDs in 2016.) As a consequence of such laws, and due to a higher likelihood of not having other eligible ID, young voters are more likely than the general population to report not showing up to vote.
And in Florida, notorious for long lines and other problems in past elections, voting rights advocates say state law may hurt young voters this year as well. In 2011, the state government cut early voting by six days, contributing to very long lines in the 2012 election. A study by the Advancement Project found that long lines affected young voters and voters of color more than older and white voters across Florida.
Ciara Taylor, political director at the Dream Defenders, a group advocating for voter activism against police brutality and racism, reports that polling places have been moved off college campuses across Florida. In Tallahassee, for example, there are no early voting places on either Florida State's or Florida A&M's campuses, which have a combined enrollment of over 50,000 students. And while Florida allows voters to use student IDs to vote, they must also present an ID that has their signature, such as a credit card.
"The voter ID law goes hand in hand with the cut back of polling locations at college campuses and shorter hours at polling places," Taylor said.
Targeting young voters in North Carolina
In North Carolina, county boards of elections have closed on-campus early voting sites across the state, making it harder for students to vote. Students at historically black Elizabeth City State University and Winston-Salem State University will not have on-campus early voting polling locations. North Carolina State University, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte have lost their on-campus sites for early voting and the general election as well.
Local elections officials have said some on-campus voting locations have been axed because they cannot provide curbside voting for disabled voters -- even though that has never stopped them from being used in the past. Other election boards -- including those in the counties where Appalachian State, Elizabeth City State, and Winston-Salem State are located -- provided no reasons for shuttering voting sites. Because of the election of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2012, county boards of elections in the state now have GOP majorities for the first time in decades.
Barriers to youth voting have also taken other forms in North Carolina. For example, the Guilford County Board of Elections rejected over 1,400 voter registration forms for students at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, another historically black school, reports Irving Allen, the fellowship director for Ignite NC, a non-partisan group that trains poll monitors and registers young voters. The students used the university's address rather than their dorm address and room numbers and consequently had their forms rejected -- the first time this has happened, he said.
"I understand the logic behind it, but before students were able to register by just putting the address of the school," Allen said. "It creates this disarray and confusion." Because the board of election did not follow up with the new registrants directly due to lack of funding, Allen said, that job fell to student activists.
Last year the Pasquotank County Board of Elections blocked an Elizabeth City State senior, Montravias King, from running for the local city council because he was registered to vote at his campus address. Pasquotank County's elections board has repeatedly challenged students' voting rights at the historically black school even though college students' right to register to vote was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1979 case. King, who is black, was eventually elected to the local city council after taking his case to the State Board of Elections with the help of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
The North Carolina General Assembly passed one of the nation's most restrictive election laws last year, shortening early voting and ending same-day registration, out of precinct voting, and pre-registration for 16 and 17 year-old students. In 2016, the law's voter ID provision will come into effect. Student IDs, even if issued by a public school, will not be accepted as voter IDs. While supporters of the law claim that it will prevent election fraud, opponents see an attempt to disenfranchise people of color and young voters.
"It seems like a unified push to make it more difficult for students to vote," said Claudia Shoemaker, president of the Appalachian State College Democrats.
Young voters of color especially affected
Studies have found that voter ID laws disproportionately affect youth and people of color -- college students or not. For example, a review by the federal Government Accountability Office found that strict voter ID laws like North Carolina's reduced youth voting in Kansas and Tennessee in the 2012 election. In Kansas that year, 18 year-olds were seven percentage points less likely than 44 to 53 year olds to turn out to vote.
Voter ID laws are also enforced in ways that disproportionately target young voters, and especially voters of color. Young voters of color are asked for photo ID as much as 50 percent more often than young white voters -- even when an ID is not required to vote. The same study found that when voter ID is required, young African-American and Hispanic voters were asked for ID more often than young white voters.
"Young people of color tend to be profiled more and asked for ID more than their white counterparts," said Katherine Culliton-González, director of voter protection for the national civil rights group the Advancement Project.
These efforts to curb young and minority voters come as youth -- and especially minority youth -- are becoming increasingly larger parts of the American electorate. Voters between 18 and 29 years old were critical to President Barack Obama's victories in 2008 and 2012. In North Carolina in 2008, the only age group of which a majority voted for Obama was voters aged 18 to 29, according to CNN. Obama won the state by just 14,177 votes.
Six years later, many of these young voters will now have to surmount new barriers just to be able to cast their ballots.
"For a country that advocates the importance of civic engagement, to be taking away the rights of these citizens is just un-American," said Taylor of the Dream Defenders. "I think that people are realizing that voting is a lot more important than they realized before."