Earlier this year, North Carolina lawmakers passed a bill aimed at stifling the newfound political muscle of their youngest eligible voters. The package of laws, known as HB 589, stripped away crucial policies that made it easier for young people to cast their ballot and participate in the political process. This week, lawyers have descended on Winston Salem to argue that eliminating these policies may have violated the 26th Amendment, which prohibits age-based voting discrimination.
The programs under attack have been proven to boost youth participation. In 2012, young people in the state were 2.6 times more likely to take advantage of same day registration. And over a three-year period, 160,000 eligible young people were automatically registered to vote from pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds. Now these options are unavailable to the young residents of North Carolina.
Laws like HB 589 are part of a troubling pattern taking hold across the country, triggered by the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, thus allowing Southern states to make changes to their voting laws without securing federal approval. A raft of voter ID laws—designed primarily to suppress turnout of minority voters—are also turning away young people, and often, both at the same time. Millennials are the largest, but also the country’s most diverse generation, with 43 percent identifying as people of color. In all, 22 states have new, restrictive voting laws that will go into effect before the 2014 midterms.
An undisguised attempt to block new immigrants and minority voters, new laws in Kansas and Arizona require voters to present proof of citizenship in order to register to vote in the first place. That means when you’re stopped on the street by a nice kid with a clipboard, you have to have your birth certificate, passport or naturalization documents just lying around in your purse or back pocket. Rock The Vote recently joined other community-registration arms including Voto Latino to sign an amicus brief, arguing that the laws unduly impair efforts to register new voters. It also launched an online petition to spread the word.
In Texas, a handgun license qualifies as proper ID for voting, but state university ID cards do not. In Florida, student unions were rejected by the state as suitable locations for early voting sites. And in Tennessee, employees of public universities are allowed to use their employee IDs to vote; however, students of the same universities are not allowed to use their college IDs.
These developments leave young voters on the defensive, instead of the offensive in the fight to expand voting rights. Our country should be making it more convenient for eligible young people to vote, not less. That means supporting efforts to expand online registration and same-day registration, institute pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, and broaden opportunities for early voting.
Every day, 12,000 Americans turn 18 years old. As country’s fastest growing generation, we comprise a pivotal voting bloc that is growing stronger every day, despite efforts to silence our voices. Efforts to suppress youth turnout aren’t just unconstitutional—they are un-American.