First they came for blacks, and we said nothing. Then they came for Latinos, poor people and married women, and we again ignored the warning signs.
Now, after our years of apathy, they’re coming for us: the nation’s millennials.
Across the country, Republican state policy makers have hoisted barriers to voting by passing voter-ID laws and curtailing electoral accommodations such as same-day registration and early voting. These policy changes are allegedly intended to eradicate the imagined scourge of voter fraud, but the real point seems to be voter suppression.
For a time, the targeted populations were primarily racial, ethnic and income groups that traditionally vote Democratic. Now they happen to include Gen-Y’ers, more specifically my college-age brethren.
We millennials may be fickle in our loyalties, distrustful of government institutions and unaligned with any political party, but our generation’s motley, liberal-to-libertarian-leaning ideological preferences still threaten red-state leadership. In response, Republicans have set out to erect creative, if potentially unconstitutional, Tough-Mudder-style obstacle courses along our path to the polls.
Last year in Ohio, for example, Republican legislators proposed a measure that would effectively strip hundreds of millions of dollars from state schools if they continued to provide students paying out-of-state tuition with the paperwork necessary to register to vote in the state (as courts have said college students are legally allowed to do). In Maine, the secretary of state investigated 200 university students for voter fraud; he found no evidence of wrongdoing but then sent a threatening letter telling them that they must either obtain a Maine driver’s license and register their vehicles or cancel their state voter registrations. In Texas, photo identification is required to vote and, while concealed handgun licenses count, state-school-issued student IDs don’t.
North Carolina’s efforts have been particularly aggressive, perhaps because young people represent an especially threatening voting bloc to the Republicans in control there. Without the strong turnout of young voters in 2008, after all, Barack Obama would not have become the first Democratic presidential candidate in more than two decades to carry the Tar Heel state.
Like other states, North Carolina has eliminated many accommodations disproportionately used by young people and other first-time voters, such as same-day registration, and instituted voter-ID requirements that don’t recognize student IDs. But it has also stopped allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to fill out voter-registration forms early so that they can be automatically registered upon reaching majority age. Another state Senate bill last year would have effectively raised taxes on parents of students who registered to vote where they attend college.
Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that the state faces a lawsuit filed by college students, aided by voter registration advocacy groups, as The New York Times reported last week. The suit essentially claims that the state is engaging in age discrimination.
Age discrimination accusations may be off-limits to young people in employment settings — federal law doesn’t protect workers under age 40 — but when it comes to elections, the plaintiffs have a shot. The 26th Amendment, which lowered the federal voting age to 18 in 1971, guarantees that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.”
Republican lawmakers may feel threatened by the political proclivities of millennials, but the truth is, aside from 2008, young people are not usually much of a concern to either party because our turnout rates are so poor. Of all age groups, Americans 18 to 29 consistently have the lowest participation rates — even in the 2008 election, when our generation was galvanized around an unusually inspiring presidential candidate promising hope and change. That year, just 51 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds cast ballots. Sadly, it was the first time since 1972 that a majority of young people voted.
For years, get-out-the-vote groups such as Rock the Vote and Citizen Change have tried to market voting as rebellious and enviably adult (including by enlisting celebrity spokespeople who were unregistered themselves, and at least one who was possibly barred from voting due to felony records). If Paris Hilton, 50 Cent and Madonna can’t convince young people to vote, maybe a bunch of old white men trying to bar their path will do the job.
Catherine Rampell comments on economics, policy and culture for The Washington Post.