Young Voters Hold the Key

Young Voters Hold the Key


With an unprecedented number of youth voters participating in the Democratic primary this season, Anna Martínez–the Democratic National Committee’s Deputy Political Director for Voter Protection– says, “We must be aware of the voting rights issues that are disproportionately affecting young voters.”

The party also needs to be aware of these issues because young voters–largely due to the success of the Obama campaign–have become a vital part of the Democratic base. Indeed a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows young people aligning with Democrats over Republicans by 58 to 33 percent–more than twice the 11-point gap that existed in 2004. The numbers suggest that this election could be a realignment that increases the Democratic majority in Congress, helps win the presidency, and continues the power shift at the state and local levels.

In the lead-up to today’s Indiana and North Carolina primaries, I spoke with Martínez about what the DNC is doing to harness student energy and protect their votes. She told me that young voters are often adversely impacted by election administration issues, “whether it’s inadvertent, failure of election officials to plan well, poor poll worker training – or in some cases, deliberate obstacles…. These issues all reflect the need for our Youth Voting Rights Institute (YVRI).” Given what we know about past efforts to tamp down student participation, it’s clear that the YVRI has a vital role to play in fighting back against any efforts to curb youth enthusiasm.

Certainly the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Indiana’s regressive voter ID law is one thing that will keep students from the polls. Under this law, a student at a state university may be able to use school identification in order to vote, but a student at a private institution such as Notre Dame will not. An out of state driver’s license along with an in-state utility bill won’t suffice either, as it would in most states. Many students who had successfully registered will be turned away today when they learn that their identification doesn’t cut it. It’s likely that others who had planned on voting but are now aware of the new restrictions simply won’t show up.

“We’re also concerned about how this will play out in other states in the general election,” Martínez said. “We want to make sure that this is not confused in other states as the law of the land. What often happens is – there’s so much confusion around these things – we could easily see another state’s poll workers thinking they have to ask for photo ID when that’s not the case. So, we have to be vigilant in attending poll worker training and actually being there on Election Day to make sure they are not requiring ID.”

Martínez pointed to Missouri in 2006, where the State Supreme Court struck down the ID requirement but there will still signs posted in numerous precincts on Election Day that read, “Must Show Photo ID.”

“One of the things that’s disheartening is to see these obstacles that are put up to first-time voters by official government entities… where it’s clear that they are trying to make voting more difficult, which is the exact opposite of what our legislators try to do,” she said.

In Missouri this year, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan is using her website to lay out the voting requirements for all first-time and student voters very clearly in a manner that encourages participation. In contrast, Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita’s site“basically discourages out-of-state students from trying to vote in Indiana,” Martínez said.

The YVRI is working with both College Democrats of America and the National Democratic Law Students Council make sure that students are aware of the opportunities they have to vote. In the past, there have been misinformation campaigns on campuses regarding polling places, hours, even the day for voting. In 2007, an incumbent councilmember tried to tell Georgia Southern University students they would lose financial aid if they voted, and automated phone calls misinformed them that their votes wouldn’t count. These student groups are also working on long-term legislative solutions to expand access to the polls through such measures as early voting and same-day registration.

“At the rates youth have been participating – and the problems in the past – we have to be on top of all of these issues,” Martínez said. “Right down to the allocations of voting machines, where you have these enormous lines in college precincts and at on-campus polling places, that’s something that we really want the local election officials to be considering. Because we really want to make sure that they are planning appropriately – that they will be prepared for a much larger turnout even than in 2004. The rumblings we hear are that they really aren’t upping the number of machines and the allocation of machines…. We just don’t want to see a massive breakdown on Election Day this year because they’ve grossly underestimated participation. Columbus, Ohio, 2004 – that was a gross underestimation of turnout – that’s why you had that complete breakdown with lines that were up to 7 hours long.”

Martínez told me that these efforts to educate and protect youth voters are also a key part of Governor Dean’s 50-State Strategy – the Chairman’s commitment to building the party so that it successfully competes in places it hasn’t in the past. “For a lot of college students and young voters, this will be their first time voting,” she said. “Governor Dean has made voter protection – including for young people – a top priority…. We want to make sure that their first experience voting is a positive one, so that they are able to register, go to the polls or vote absentee, and have that vote be counted.”

Youth voters serving as poll workers can also help ensure that these new votes are counted.

“The big thing is voter education and the training of poll workers – or the lack thereof,” Martínez said. “We want young voters to be directly participating in the process and signing up to work the polls. I can’t emphasize enough how important that is.”

Despite the Hoosier state’s opposition to real voting rights, today we’re likely to see a continuation of young people’s stunning mobilization, turnout, and enthusiasm in the Indiana and North Carolina primaries.

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