By Jack Fitzpatrick
Natalie Butler, a 2012 graduate and former student government president of the University of Texas at Austin, said a Texas law that would prevent voters from using student IDs could have a negative effect on the voting process. She is particularly worried about local elections in Austin, where student turnout rates already are low. Texas residents may not be able to use a student ID, but a gun permit will do in Texas and some other states.
Morehouse College students in Atlanta can use ID cards to buy food and school supplies, use computer labs and get books from the library, but they can’t use their ID to vote. A few miles away, Georgia State University students can use their student ID to vote, because it's a state school.
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Across the country, college students are facing new questions about their voting rights. In some states, communities are debating whether students can vote as state residents or vote absentee from their hometowns. In others, legislators have debated whether student IDs can be used at the polls.
College students, who led a record turnout among 18- to 24-year-old voters in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, could play a major role in this November’s elections, but their impact could be blunted by states’ voter ID requirements.
In Georgia, for example, the debate started with the state’s voter ID law, which accepts student IDs from state colleges but not private institutions such as Morehouse. Legislators have rejected student IDs from private schools, saying the lack of uniformity among school IDs would be a burden for poll workers. There are 198 accredited postsecondary schools in Georgia, including beauty academies and music institutes, according to the National Center of Education Statistics.
Who can vote? A national News21 investigation of voting rights in America.
Even many ID cards from public colleges are rejected under some state laws, because the cards do not include addresses, issuance and expiration dates.
In Wisconsin, some colleges paid for new, state-acceptable student IDs while others charged students for new IDs.
Groups that advocate on behalf of young voters say restrictions against school IDs could drive down student turnout.
“They’re another one of these suppression laws that affects disabled, older and younger voters on equal levels, but the older population is in the habit of voting,” said Sarah Stern, a spokeswoman for national advocacy group the League of Young Voters.
Georgia state Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan, a Democrat, has introduced three bills since 2008 to accept IDs from all accredited schools, rather than just public schools. All three bills failed.
Morgan got the idea in 2008 from one of her office interns. Aubrey Patterson, who also worked as a poll worker in Chatham County, told Morgan that in the 2008 elections, he saw private college and university students told that they could not use their school IDs at the polls.
“There was a lot of frustration from students attending private schools,” said Patterson, a Morehouse alumnus who is now a graduate student at Georgia State.
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Accepting student IDs makes voting more convenient, Patterson said, because many students don’t have driver’s licenses and don’t have a reason to carry another form of ID.
“Some students don’t carry around too much money and stuff like that,” Patterson said. “The card is almost like an ATM.”
Jared Thomas, spokesman for Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, said Kemp supported Morgan’s bill and worked with her on it.
Thomas said he didn’t believe Morgan’s bill would be difficult for the secretary of state’s office to implement, and that they would support similar bills in the future. Thomas said he thought the law was clear about its ID requirements, even without adding private school IDs.
“It’s very clear right now that if you’re at UGA (the University of Georgia), it’s a state-issued ID, and if you’re at Emory (University) or Mercer (University), it’s private and would not count by any stretch as state-issued ID,” Thomas said.
On a national scale, voter ID laws could have a significant impact on student voters in the November elections. Stern said college students were one of the demographics targeted by voter ID laws because students are likely to vote for Democrats.
“It definitely will affect turnout,” Stern said. “And people know that. It’s a concerted, partisan strategy.”
President Barack Obama won two-thirds of the vote among 18- to 24-year-olds in 2008, according to exit polls. That was the only age group to significantly increase turnout over 2004.
Obama campaign says laws will hurt turnout
Mahen Gunaratna, an Obama campaign spokesman, said the campaign was making young voters a priority again this year and that voter ID laws worked against turnout.
Arizona state Rep. Martin Quezada, an Obama campaign surrogate, said young voters were just as important now as they were four years ago.
“The youth vote is critical after the 2008 election,” he said. “It’s a different group of 18- to 24-year-olds now, but they have the same reasons to be excited.”
No comment from Romney
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s campaign did not respond to requests for an interview. Regardless of whether student IDs are accepted, voter ID laws might put young voters at a disadvantage.
A 2005 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute study found that white, black and Hispanic 18- to 24-year-olds in the state were less likely to have a driver’s license than the general voting population. The study found that 78 percent of black men in Wisconsin in that age group did not have a valid driver’s license.
Despite the obstacles they present, voter ID laws haven’t received much opposition from students. A poll by the nonprofit Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, which advocates on behalf of environmental and social issues, found that most Minnesota college students support that state’s proposed voter ID amendment, even though the majority of them do not have the necessary identification.
Some states, such as Georgia and Indiana, accept student IDs from public schools because they are issued by the government. Others, such as Kansas, accept student IDs from all accredited schools. And some, like Wisconsin, might exclude many public and private universities by requiring dates when the cards were issued and when they expire. The University of Wisconsin system, with more than 181,000 students enrolled, did not include that information on student IDs when the bill passed.
Wisconsin’s voter ID law has been blocked twice in court, but the state would have some of the strictest ID requirements in the country if injunctions are lifted.
After the law was passed, the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire provided new, optional student IDs including the necessary information. To offset the cost of the new IDs, the university will charge $2 for each, a cost that Democratic state Rep. Gary Hebl calls unconstitutional.
“It’s a poll tax, obviously,” Hebl said. “The purpose of the card is to vote with it.”
And Hebl said the low cost of the IDs didn’t make a difference. “To charge people to vote is unconstitutional,” he said. “If it costs a nickel, it’s unconstitutional; $2 could be the difference between buying a loaf of bread or voting.”
Paydon Miller, president of the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire Student Democrats, said that although the cost for the new student IDs is low, it is wrong to make students “jump through hoops.”
“We are placing a burden on the student body that doesn’t exist for other people,” Miller said.
Gun permits will do in Texas, not student ID under new law
In Texas, student IDs might be rejected at the polls while gun permits are accepted, depending on a lawsuit over the state’s voter ID law. Texas’ law passed the legislature but has been blocked by the Department of Justice. If the state wins against the Justice Department, no student IDs from public or private schools would be accepted at the polls.
Natalie Butler, a 2012 graduate and former student government president of the University of Texas–Austin, said the law would have a negative effect on students. She is particularly worried about local elections in Austin, where student turnout rates already are low.
“If we’re going to make it even harder for students to impact city politics, that’s a huge problem,” she said.
In addition to restrictions on using school IDs, students face challenges based on residency. Out-of-state students must choose which state they want to vote in — their home state, where they may have to file an absentee ballot, or at school, where they face scrutiny from local residents.
In New Hampshire, Republican state Rep. Gregory Sorg tried last year to bar college students from voting in the state unless they lived there before enrolling. And state House Speaker William O’Brien, a Republican, received national attention when he mentioned voting restrictions that would affect students, such as same-day voter registration, and then attacked how he presumed students would vote.
“Voting as a liberal, that’s what kids do,” he was recorded saying at a New Hampshire Tea Party event. “They lack the life experience and they just vote their feelings.”
Sorg’s bill, which did not pass, included provisions that would have let students prove their state residence if they really planned to stay there, but Sorg said most college students live on an isolated campus and have no community ties.
“It distorts the way a community is run,” Sorg said. “Transients could descend on a community and take it over.”
In Maine, state Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster accused 206 out-of-state college students of committing voter fraud. That prompted Secretary of State Charlie Summers to investigate.
Summers, also a Republican, found no cases of voter fraud or double voting, but he mailed letters to all the students, asking them to either cancel their registration in Maine or apply for a state driver’s licenses.
Despite these challenges to out-of-state students, Stern said the League of Young Voters encourages college students to vote in the state where they go to school because the process of receiving an absentee ballot is so complicated.
“The likelihood of students registering at their parent’s house and then correctly filling out the application for an absentee ballot is low,” Stern said.
Discuss this series of stories on the Facebook page for Open Channel, the NBC News investigative blog.
Lizzie Chen, Alia Conley, Emily Nohr and Alex Remington of News21 contributed to this article.
Jack Fitzpatrick was a Hearst Foundations Fellow this summer for News21.