Voter Suppression Is Keeping Students From the Polls

Voter Suppression Is Keeping Students From the Polls

Voter Suppression Is Keeping Students From the Polls

Less than half of Americans under 30 said they were “certain to vote” in the midterm elections. But in battleground states across the country, college organizers are fighting for ballot access.

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From August to October 2022, Kristina Samuel skipped almost every one of their Tuesday morning classes to fight for equal access to the ballot. Samuel, a senior biology major at Texas A&M University who uses both she/her and they/them pronouns, negotiated with their professor to be able to attend Brazos County’s Commissioners Court meetings, which occur every Tuesday at 10 am. Samuel joined a handful of other students and professors testifying for accessible polling locations for Texas A&M students and community members.

Across the country, students in battleground states have encountered a wide range of obstacles to casting their ballot. In Texas and Florida, early voting locations on large college campuses have shifted away from centers of student life. In Georgia, students have protested the state’s restrictive voting policies and demanded equal access to the ballot. And in Pennsylvania, organizers wield their state’s partisan importance to turn students out to the polls.

Samuel emphasizes that this is no small issue. Their school, Texas A&M, is the largest university in the United States by enrollment, with over 70,000 students and a sprawling 5,200-acre campus. When Samuel voted in the 2020 primary election on campus, they waited in line for three hours while watching countless students give up. “I had a lecture and a lab later that night, and there was a three- or four-hour gap, so I thought that would be plenty of time for me to go vote,” Samuel says. They were able to vote, but risked missing mandatory class time.

On July 5, the Brazos County Commissioners Court approved a list of early voting locations for the November midterms that did not include the Memorial Student Center (MSC), a long-standing early voting location on Texas A&M’s campus. The MSC was replaced by a early voting location about a mile and a half away, farther from the center of campus life. Members of the Commissioners Court stated that this decision was made because non-university-affiliated residents of College Station had difficulty navigating the campus, but Samuel emphasizes that there is free parking located next to the MSC, and residents can access every early voting site in the county.

Students first found out about the early voting change from an article in The Battalion, Texas A&M’s student newspaper, that was published on August 1. “It was interesting to us that [this decision] was made conveniently in the summer when the majority of students weren’t in College Station,” Samuel says. “They didn’t consult any students, or make sure that the effects of this major decision were taken into account.”

Organizers immediately got to work mobilizing around the issue. Samuel is the president and founder of the Texas A&M chapter of MOVE Texas, a nonpartisan organization that engages underrepresented youth with grassroots organizing, which began poring over state and county elections law and coordinating attendance to Commissioners Court. “We knew that this was going to be a barrier to everyone on campus,” Samuel says. Conversations with the Board of Commissioners moved slowly. Samuel and other organizers from Texas A&M repeatedly testified about barriers to voting on campus, but they were told that it was too late to make any changes to voting locations in the midterm elections. When MOVE Texas consulted with civil rights lawyers and the election code though, they found no legal obstacles, only the board’s view that any changes would be impractical.

But after months of testimony and two hearings to consider early voting locations in 2022 and 2023, the students gained some ground. On October 11, the Brazos County Commissioners approved a plan to utilize buses to take voters from the MSC to the new voting location at College Station City Hall. The total cost for the buses during early voting is $15,000—the county will pay $5,000, while student and community organizations must foot the rest of the bill.

“Ballot access is so crucial, because it’s about making your voice heard. It’s about making sure that everyone feels empowered to take their energy and take their passion and take their lived experiences…and go to the ballot box,” says Maya Mackey, the president of the Texas chapter of Voters of Tomorrow, a youth-led nonprofit that helped arrange the buses in College Station. Through close collaboration, the students organized two weeks of shuttle service that transported Texas A&M students to and from the polls every 20 minutes. The Brazos County Board of Commissioners intends to reinstate the early voting location at MSC for 2023 elections, but only time will tell the impact of this change on the 2022 midterms.

A few hundred miles away, students in Georgia waged a similar battle. Toward the end of the summer, Mason Goodwin stumbled on an election oversight that could drastically affect the outcome of Georgia’s midterms. Goodwin is a sophomore student at Georgia State University (GSU) and a member of Panthers Vote Coalition, a student-led program that engages in voter outreach and education on GSU’s campus.

As part of his work with Panthers Vote in the past, Goodwin staffed outreach sites on GSU’s campus: early voting locations that make voting more accessible to students, such as the MSC at Texas A&M. In late July, Goodwin learned that Fulton County had not yet voted to renew early polling locations on college campuses for the 2022 midterms. On July 29, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia wrote, “The ACLU of Georgia has confirmed that Fulton County officials do not plan to provide early voting on any college or university campus in the county.”

Goodwin says that this lack of action would limit ballot access at Georgia’s most diverse universities. GSU, situated in the heart of Atlanta, serves over 30,000 students and boasts the highest number of Black graduates of any college in the country. It neighbors the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of HBCUs that includes Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine, and Spelman College. Combined, these schools represent almost 40,000 voters, most of whom are Black, in a state that was decided by fewer than 12,000 votes in 2020.

For help, Goodwin turned to the ACLU of Georgia and the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition (GYJC), a youth community power organization that works at the intersection of public education and democracy. Julian Fortuna, an organizer with GYJC and a sophomore at the University of Georgia, says that advocating for early voting locations in the relatively progressive Fulton County campuses felt like a balancing act, since the state legislature is Republican=controlled.

In 2021, Georgia passed SB 202, a piece of restrictive elections law that allowed the State Elections Board to intervene in the processes of county election boards. When the Fulton County Board of Elections failed to approve early voting locations on college campuses, student organizers worried that Fulton County felt pushed by the Republican-controlled state legislature to suppress the vote of Democratic-leaning universities in Metro Atlanta. “[The Fulton County Board of Elections] is under a lot of pressure from the state and from these radical far right organizations that spend a lot of time trying to undermine what [they do],” Fortuna says.

However, the situation is complicated. Fortuna speculates that it’s also possible that Fulton County could have approved the early voting locations with little to no pushback from the state, and that the delay was a careless error that showed how students were not a priority. GYJC, the ACLU of Georgia, and other voting rights organizations in Atlanta reached out to the Fulton County Board of Elections to address their concerns. After ironing out some miscommunication about the board’s intended actions for the election cycle, the students attended a Board of Elections meeting in August and testified about the importance of accessible voting on college campuses. The board voted to reinstate on-campus polling locations in the same meeting.

“They were frankly pretty appreciative of the advocacy we had done around this,” Fortuna says. “As an organizer in Georgia, it’s easy to misunderstand slight opposition, or a lack of thoughtfulness or understanding about the implications, as ideological opposition, which is not necessarily what we had unfold.” Goodwin and Fortuna’s experience doesn’t mean that voter suppression doesn’t exist in Georgia; it shows that students must fight tooth and nail to hold all boards of elections accountable, whether they commit an egregious offense or a dangerous oversight.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Jake Lorenz, a student at the University of Pittsburgh and the communications director for Pitt for Shapiro, describes what voting looks like in a swing state when students and local governments rise to the occasion. “In terms of what the university does to get the vote out, it’s good work,” Lorenz says. He explains that there is a student-run team called Pitt Votes that registers voters and engages in elections outreach, like the Panthers Coalition at GSU, and polling locations are in public buildings scattered across campus, even in lecture halls.

The main challenge, Lorenz says, is getting students to engage with the resources at their disposal. Gen-Z still trails older generations in voter turnout, and only 49 percent of Americans aged 19 to 29 said they were “certain to vote” in the midterm elections this year. “Students will put their heads down when they pass the voter registration table,” Lorenz adds. He feels more encouraged every day. For every apathetic student that dodges his canvassing efforts, there are more who show up to text bank on a Wednesday or deliver lawn signs door-to-door. “There’s a sort of excitement out there, which makes me really happy that we’re doing this work,” Lorenz says. “Young people do care.”

Disparities in on-campus ballot access in Texas, Georgia, and Pennsylvania reveal two key truths about the 2022 midterm elections: Voter suppression often thrives outside of national uproar—mismanaged county budgets, minor oversights, and careless mistakes—and it has the potential to severely impact national elections. As students like Samuel, Goodwin, and Fortuna fight for every vote at their universities, it’s up to youth to take advantage of the resources at their disposal and cast their ballot before or on election day. “If anything were to change, it wasn’t going to be because of elected officials,” Samuel says. “It was going to be because of the students and young people, who work 20 hours a week and are full-time students, who are doing this purely because we think it’s the right thing to do.”

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