Maggie Flaherty was so upset that she was too young to cast a ballot against Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election that one of her first missions when she arrived as a freshman at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire the following year was to register to vote.
“That costs money,” said Flaherty, who along with a classmate and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state after the law passed. “And I don’t think it should cost money to be able to vote.”
The fight in New Hampshire is one of at least a dozen legal skirmishes being waged across the country, in the run-up to the 2020 election, that are financed by Democrats and liberal activists who hope to overturn or head off measures they fear could erode the electoral might of young voters — an increasingly left-leaning voting bloc.
Over the past decade, Republicans in more than a dozen states have tried to limit the kinds of student IDs that can be used at the polls, restricted the number of polling locations on or near college campuses, or gerrymandered political boundaries that divide campuses and dilute the power of student voters, as well as other measures.
Among the states with laws that Democrats fear could hamper the youth vote in 2020 are battlegrounds including Wisconsin, Florida and New Hampshire.
Republicans say the rules are meant to prevent fraud and safeguard the integrity of elections, and they deny accusations that they are trying to make it harder for young people to vote.
But there is little doubt that Democrats had more to gain when young voters engaged in recent elections. Voters under 30 turned out in record numbers last fall, helping to power a liberal wave that swept Democrats into power in Congress.
At the same time, that age group still cast ballots at far lower rates than all others. Voting-rights activists believe one reason is a slew of restrictions pushed by GOP state leaders in recent years.
Democrats and their allies are planning to spend millions of dollars on lawsuits arguing that such measures are unconstitutional and aimed at dissuading the participation of young voters.
“Elections are oftentimes a game of inches,” said Marc Elias, a Democratic lawyer in Washington who is leading many of the challenges. “Young voters, particularly given the size of the millennial generation, can be measured in feet or yards. The difference of one percentage point here or there can be the difference between victory and loss.”
A growing political power
Young voters have eluded Democrats for decades, and they are still not close to realizing their full electoral power. In the 2018 midterms, their turnout rate was little more than half that of voters overall, according to data from Tufts University and the University of Florida.
Yet from 2014 to 2018, participation among young voters rose seven percentage points, according to the Tufts analysis. More than two-thirds of them voted for Democrats in 2018, according to exit polling data — a higher margin than seen in a generation.
“That swing of 18- to 29-year-olds was responsible for adding two percentage points to the popular vote for Democrats this election,” said John Della Volpe, polling director for the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “There were 10 seats that Democrats won by less than two points.”
Narrow electoral margins are among the reasons New Hampshire has emerged as a pivotal legal battleground over the youth vote.
In 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won the state by fewer than 3,000 votes, or three-tenths of a percentage point. Democrat Maggie Hassan unseated Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) with a victory margin of just 1,017 votes.
Trump falsely claimed the results had been stolen, and state Republicans lamented that college students from out of state may have swayed the outcomes.
Two years later, Republicans moved to pass a law requiring voters to comply with strict residency requirements such as getting a New Hampshire driver’s license and vehicle registration. Voting rights advocates said it would disproportionately affect out-of-state students.
Supporters of the new law said it was intended to combat fraud and noted that New Hampshire was the only state that did not require voters to be legal residents.
“We have a group of people who say, ‘This is where I live, but don’t have to register my car here. I don’t have to get my license like everyone else in this room has to do,’ ” said Sharon Carson, a Republican senator from Londonderry, N.H., during debate on the measure. “And yet we allow them to vote here.”
As he signed the measure last July, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said it “restores equality and fairness to our elections.
“Finally, every person who votes in New Hampshire will be treated the same,” he said. “This is the essence of an equal right to vote.”
Opponents argued that unlike in some other states, residents who move to New Hampshire are required to switch over their driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations within 60 days. The penalty for not doing so can reach $1,000. The cost of a new license is $50 and vehicle registration can cost hundreds of dollars, depending on the car, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
In its suit, the ACLU argued that the requirement is the equivalent of a poll tax.
“There’s certainly an effort to keep the electorate to a known, identifiable group,” said Julie Ebenstein, a lawyer with the ACLU litigating the case. “They certainly weren’t subtle.”
Sherman Packard, the Republican state representative who sponsored the bill, rejected the notion that the measure imposed financial barriers to voting.
“This lawsuit came from college students that are going to Dartmouth,” he said. “Do you know how much it costs to go to Dartmouth? It’s $50,000 a year. So don’t tell me it’s a hardship to register your car here.”
A wave of new restrictions
Republicans across the country began enacting a new wave of voting restrictions in 2011 after seizing control of a majority of state legislatures the prior year.
The volume of measures grew after 2013, when the Supreme Court decided, in Shelby County v. Holder, to strike down a portion of the Voting Rights Act that required certain jurisdictions, mostly in the South, to obtain federal permission to change voting rules and district boundaries.
The elimination of that requirement triggered a flood of new laws that included constraints that affected young voters, such as a voter ID law in North Carolina that restricted the use of student IDs at the polls.
Researchers say voting laws have a disproportionate impact on young people, who are often transient and less engaged in their local communities.
“We know from long-standing research that young people are more sensitive to changes in election law,” said Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “Young people haven’t established a voting habit yet. So these things either get in the way or enable them to get that habit started.”
In states they control, Democrats have sought to encourage youth voting by making registration easier and extending the period of early voting, even as many GOP-controlled states have gone in the other direction with new restrictions.
In some cases, debates about the measures have been laced with town-and-gown tensions, with lawmakers complaining that the votes of longtime residents were being overwhelmed by those of temporary college students.
A conservative Arizona lawmaker named Bob Thorpe, whose district includes Northern Arizona University, proposed in 2017 blocking students from registering to vote at their college addresses unless they change their driver’s licenses, because local voters “are being drowned out by the student population.” The measure didn’t pass.
In an interview, Thorpe said his constituents were “very frustrated” by the impact of “part-time students” after a local referendum in 2016 raised the minimum wage in Flagstaff. “That voter referendum got pushed over the finish line by students going to Northern Arizona University,” he said.
A coordinated legal strategy
As part of their legal strategy, Democrats and civil rights groups are scouring state codes for both new and old measures that they believe could hinder young people from voting.
One such measure in Texas was passed in the wake of the ratification of the 26th Amendment in 1971, which guaranteed the right of 18-year-olds to vote.
The law, which is still on the books, does not allow new voters to preregister to vote until they are 17 years and 10 months old. Democrats are considering challenging the law — and potentially four similar ones in Alaska, Georgia, Iowa and Missouri — on the grounds that they give younger voters a smaller window to register than others, according to a strategy memo obtained by The Washington Post.
The efforts to strike down laws that opponents argue discriminate against young voters comes after they failed in some cases to topple those same measures with claims of racial discrimination.
Activists lost a battle in 2015 over Wisconsin’s voter ID law, for instance, but Common Cause Wisconsin filed a lawsuit in April arguing that the same law discriminates against college students. The measure requires student IDs to include a signature, an issuance date and an expiration date no more than two years after the issuance date — features that are not always included on cards issued by universities.
Under the law, which passed in 2011 and was implemented in 2016, the requirements are not all mandated for other accepted forms of IDs used at the polls, such as those carried by faculty members.
Also in Wisconsin, activists in 2016 successfully overturned limits to early voting locations, which they argued affected minority populations as well as students. The case remains on appeal. In Iowa, opponents blocked a proposal this year that would have prohibited early-voting on the campuses of the state’s three public universities.
Another challenge is underway against political boundaries in North Carolina that have, among other things, diluted the power of college campuses. The case, which is before the Supreme Court, includes congressional district boundaries that divide the campus of the historically black campus of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro.
In Florida, Democrats succeeded last year in temporarily blocking a prohibition of early voting locations on college campuses, which Republican officials had argued was necessary in part because such locations offer insufficient public parking.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker issued a temporary injunction against the law last July, accusing state officials of “a stark pattern of discrimination.”
“It is unexplainable on grounds other than age because it bears so heavily on younger voters than on all other voters,” Walker wrote in his ruling. “Throwing up roadblocks in front of younger voters does not remotely serve the public interest. Abridging voting rights never does.”
With the policy suspended, election officials in nine counties chose to operate early-voting locations on 12 college campuses in last fall’s midterm elections. More than 60,000 cast ballots at those locations. And overall, turnout among under-30 voters in Florida was up 13 percentage points, according to Tufts University. Preliminary data released this month by researchers at the University of Florida shows that early voting on college campuses helped boost turnout.
The legal fight over the Florida law is ongoing, however. Republican lawmakers passed a law this year blocking voting at locations without “sufficient non-permitted parking,” which Democrats and civil rights groups say is a new way to implement the same restriction. On Monday, they filed an amended lawsuit seeking to strike the new law, as well.
A new kind of participation
In New Hampshire, the new residency law has yet to be implemented because of the ongoing lawsuit. Turnout, meanwhile, jumped in the state last fall and helped Democrats take over the state’s House and Senate. Its five largest college communities saw turnout increases from 2014 to 2018 of between 31 percent and 56 percent, according to America Votes, a liberal voting-rights group.
Caroline Casey, a rising junior at Dartmouth and a plaintiff alongside Flaherty in the ACLU case, said that if anything the new law has made her more engaged in New Hampshire politics — even though she’s from Louisiana.
“It made me kind of up my level of involvement,” she said. “I got really passionate about educating people, about raising awareness of the importance of voting rights for all students.”
The new Democratic-controlled legislature repealed the residency law this year, although Sununu has signaled that he will veto the repeal.
Among the new Democratic lawmakers who voted for repeal is state Rep. Garrett Muscatel (D), a 21-year-old who moved to New Hampshire from California in 2016 to attend Dartmouth. After joining a suit against an early version of the residency law, he decided to run for office.
“The only way to stop voter suppression,” said Muscatel, now a rising senior, “was to get in the legislature myself.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.