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Failing the Grade: Young People Face Strong Barriers at the Polls

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Weekly Voting Rights News Update

Young or college-age voters have been found to share similar characteristics with poor and minority voters: They vote Democratic and are underrepresented in the electorate. Their turnout rates are also "depressed by some simple but strong barriers." Such barriers - which are identical to those historically affecting poor and minority voters - include identification requirements; long lines at the polls; vote "challenges; and intimidation.

"Some of these problems can be resolved in time for the 2008 elections. But for others, it may already be too late," reported Ben Adler of The Politico.

Project Vote released a study Thursday that shows "young people, especially young minority males, were disproportionately underrepresented" in the 2006 midterm election. In reporting on the release, the New York Times' blog, The Caucus noted. "The 24-page analysis highlighted the poor turnout of youth voters -- those ages 18 to 29 made up about 20 percent of the eligible voting population but only 10 percent of voters."

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Young voters are "paying attention to the quickly approaching 2008 elections" as much as older voters, according to this Rock the Vote report. For example, "a survey from The Pew Research Center found that 38% of 18-29 year olds have watched candidate debates, about the same percentage as 30-49 year olds (36%) and 50-64 year olds (42%)."

So, if young voters are equally invested in politics as their older counterparts, why is it harder for them to turn out the vote?

Voter ID laws, which often require that the "voter's street address and voter registration match," are likely to disenfranchise students who have licenses that show their hometown addresses, Adler reported. "In Milwaukee County, 74 percent of African Americans and 66 percent of Hispanics aged 18-24 did not have a valid driver's license - the most common form of voter ID - according to a study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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David Muhlhausen of the Heritage Foundation said voter ID laws do not disenfranchise young voters because those who do not obtain ID to vote would not have voted anyway. "People respond to incentives," he said. "They're going to get an ID because they want to buy a case of beer. It's a question of priorities." This tone-deaf approach to voting rights emulates that of Justice Department Voting Section chief, John Tanner, who recently admitted voter ID laws harm the elderly, but not minorities because they die earlier than whites, he said.

If the voter ID laws will not stop them, young voters face other barriers, such as difficult registration procedures, insufficient polling machines, and long lines. "On college campuses, where students arrive in September and may not register until the last minute, it can result in too few voting machines," Adler wrote. In 2004, students at Kenyon College in Ohio waited up to 13 hours to vote due to lack of machines. In 2006, University of Maryland students experienced similar ills: "Polling places had to remain open until 10 p.m. to accommodate all those in line - even though many races, including the gubernatorial election, had already been called." As a result, students are pushing Maryland state lawmakers to consider a state bill making more machines available on campus.

Fear of "political domination" by out-of-states students voting from campus played out in Maine this year "when Republican state lawmaker L. Gary Knight proposed legislation that would have made it illegal to register to vote using a dorm as one's primary address," thus requiring the majority of students to vote absentee. The bill was fought and defeated for putting "'an extra burden on one part of the community.'"

In general, mobility rates appear to be related to low voter turnout, particularly among youth, the poor and minorities. Just 55 percent of those residing for less than one year at their current address report being registered and only half of those voted. See this table on "Residency, Mobility, and Participation" from the new Project Vote report.

Voter deception is "another source of student disenfranchisement," Adler wrote, citing an instance in 2004 where a local district attorney reportedly told some students at "a historically black university near Houston," that they were ineligible to vote in the county.

Two presidential candidates "who might benefit from a high youth turnout - Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York - are pushing measures to eliminate voting barriers, including some that fall hardest on students." Obama's bill criminalizing intimidation practices has passed the full House and Senate Judiciary Committee. Clinton's "electoral reform package" would require states to mail registration forms to every 18-year-old and adopt Election Day Registration, "something both its supporters and opponents say increases youth voter turnout."

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Although some defenders of institutional barriers, such as voter ID, argue that apathy is more likely the reason for low turnout rather than disenfranchisement, it is imperative for government officials and civic organizations to continue to expand access to voter registration, not inhibit it. The fact that such barriers and biases exist shows how politicians have reacted in the past to the potential voting power of young people. Governments should view bias in the electorate as a call to lower barriers to participation and embrace voter registration as an affirmative responsibility not as another opportunity to ensure eligible people never make it onto the rolls in the first place..

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