Competition can be a very good thing. In business it can keep down prices and in politics, it can— in theory— encourage politicians to work to help voters. So when I saw this Rolling Stone headline yesterday— The GOP Is Pushing to Steal Students’ Votes— I though, oh, good, maybe they’ll back a policy that students like, which would push Democrats to outdo them. After all, Democrats have had a massive advantage with young voters over the last several years. Only 35% of voters age 18-29 voted for Trump in 2020. I started thinking about things Republicans could do to win some of them away.
Back a vigorous program to combat Climate Change
Come out for Medicare-for-All
Announce they back a ceasefire in Gaza
End the party-wide homophobia and transphobia
Sponsor legislation to remove the burden of student debt
Sponsor legislation to deal with affordable housing
Back a livable wage
Stop trying to force women to have babies
Back gun safety laws
But that wasn’t what the Rolling Stone article was about at all. Instead, it was about how Republican officials are discouraging students and young people from voting at all! “Across the country this year,” wrote Tessa Stuart, “targeted efforts to disenfranchise student voters have ramped up as election after election proved just how critical the bloc is to guarantee Democratic victories. With encouragement from influential GOP operatives, those efforts— which met with middling success in ‘23— are poised to escalate in 2024. And they speak to a growing fear with which Republican officials and strategists regard young voters.”
In Wisconsin, the GOP-controlled legislature has seized every opportunity to try and block students from voting. “We’ve seen really strong student engagement in our last couple of elections,” Morgan Hess, executive director of the Wisconsin Assembly Democrats, tells Rolling Stone. “And suddenly, we’re seeing new legislation that would prohibit student’s ability to vote.”
Hess points to GOP efforts over the past several years to make it harder to register, eliminate drop boxes, shorten early voting, increase residency requirements, and reduce polling locations — mostly in Madison and Milwaukee. “These are very targeted operations that serve to further entrench the power that they already have,” says Hess.
Months after their April routing, party functionaries at the Wisconsin GOP’s convention mulled a resolution demanding college students to vote absentee in their hometowns; one supporter of the resolution declared students had “hijacked” his city. The resolution failed to advance after another official raised the possibility that attacking students’ right to vote could backfire— an argument that seems prophetic in retrospect, as a growing number of polls show Trump outpolling Joe Biden with young voters.
Nevertheless, Republicans in state legislatures across the country this year have proposed laws targeting the student vote. In New Hampshire, House Republicans introduced a bill that would have prohibited any college students who pay out-of-state tuition from voting, and require the state’s colleges to provide the secretary of state with a list of eligible voters. Lawmakers “want the elections to be the reflection of those who reside in New Hampshire towns and who ultimately bear the consequences of the election results,” said Republican Rep. Sandra Panek, who introduced the measure in committee. (The bill was eventually killed.)
The same month, a GOP lawmaker in Texas introduced a bill that would ban polling places at colleges and universities. (That bill has not advanced out of committee.) In Virginia, there was a failed effort to repeal a law that allows anyone 16 or older to register to vote if they will be 18 by the next major election. And, according to the Voting Rights Lab, legislation seeking to change the rules around student IDs was introduced or enacted in at least 15 states this year.
It’s all part of a concerted strategy advanced by GOP operatives like Cleta Mitchell— one of the central figures behind Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. At a summit a few weeks after Wisconsin’s April special election, Mitchell told Republican donors that the party must do more to limit campus voting in swing states like Wisconsin “for any candidate other than a leftist to have a chance to WIN in 2024.”
Students and their advocates are pushing back against these efforts. In Wisconsin, leaflets distributed on campus ahead of April’s special election included information educating voters about the state’s ID requirements. In Idaho— the state that saw the largest increase in voter registrations from 18- and 19-year-olds ahead the 2022 midterms— a law set to go into effect Jan. 1, which bans the use of student IDs to register to vote or cast a ballot, is being challenged in lawsuits by the organization Babe Vote, the League of Women Voters and March for Our Lives Idaho. The groups claim that the law violates constitutional protections against age discrimination in voting.
“Young people are the reason why Biden won in 2020 and Democrats up and down the ballot won in 2022 and 2023,” says Abhi Rahman, national communications director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “If Gen Z continues to vote, we’re on the cusp of the most progressive era in our country’s history. Republicans know this as well, and that’s why they’re doing everything they can to stop young people from voting, including the fight for restrictions that we’re seeing play out in states like Wisconsin today.”