- In a move to resolve a lawsuit brought against the state last fall, Michigan pledged to promote voter participation among college students through a new voter engagement initiative.
- The student-led lawsuit, which was filed ahead of the November midterm elections, alleged state voting requirements deliberately confuse young voters, making it more difficult for them to register or vote. The new initiative's promises include more voter drives and updates to state manuals to emphasize college voters.
- The resolution comes at a time of soaring student activism in the U.S. Advocacy groups continue to encourage institutions in their efforts to educate students of the voting system and their rights.
Amid the country's increasingly unstable political climate, and especially since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, ballot initiatives have emboldened young voters to push back when they feel their rights are being threatened. A 2016 study by the University of California, Los Angeles, found that political and civic engagement among incoming college students reached record levels.
And with reason. Since Democrats took control of the House of Representatives following the midterms — an election that brought reports of heightened voter suppression nationwide — several states have been locked in legal battles with citizen initiatives over voting rules. Voting rights advocates aim to loosen the requirements ahead of the next general election.
For instance, North Carolina introduced a new voter identification law last year that imposes restrictive qualifying measures on some private colleges' ID cards. Tennessee signed a law in May placing strict requirements on groups that pay people to register voters, as well as on registration drive organizers. Voting rights advocates have since sued to overturn the law.
Some lawsuits, like the one in Michigan, have proven effective, helped along by an administration friendly to the idea. A referendum campaign in Florida helped restore the voting rights of 1.4 million people with felony convictions last November.
In Louisiana, the Andrew Goodman Foundation coordinated efforts between Louisiana State University and the state government to introduce legislation mandating state-funded institutions to issue IDs meeting state voter ID requirements. The law went into effect at the beginning of this year.
Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education, is optimistic these efforts have emboldened students.
"[Young people] see these things passing and they say, 'Hey, wait a minute, this can actually happen,'" she said. It is colleges' responsibility to educate students of their rights, she added, and it should be seen as a long-term investment.
The institute recommends administrators stay aware of the political landscape and intervene when those rights are inhibited. But merely removing the technical barriers to voting will not necessarily motivate more students to vote, Thomas cautioned.
Michael Burns, national director of the Campus Vote Project (CVP), agreed. The concern isn't whether colleges are inhibiting students' right to vote. "It's if they're being passive or not," he said.
CVP is run by the Fair Elections Center, which focuses on voter education and advocacy. The center documents and shares strategies institutions use and encourages them to effect change using their own resources. Those strategies include setting up a college website with voting information, incorporating voter registration into campus activities and establishing a campus polling site.
NASPA, an association for student affairs professionals, recently collaborated with CVP on an ongoing project called Voter Friendly Campuses, in which colleges develop, implement and report results on their voter engagement initiatives. In February, 123 of 150 participating schools earned the designation of "Voter Friendly Campuses" for their commitment to expanding voting access on campus.
Burns, like Thomas, is hopeful that "a real trend in the right direction" will continue into 2020, ahead of the next general election.