Some states make registering to vote very tricky for college students away from home. Experts say blocking student votes can greatly impact election results.

State Voting Laws Block Out-of-State Students


  • Changing the state where you cast your vote impacts more than just local elections.
  • College students represent a formidable voting bloc, especially in swing states.
  • Some states are issuing new voting laws against students in a bid to restrict the "blue wave."
  • Out-of-state students face several hurdles to voting, including purges and a lack of poll places.

Many college students in the U.S. must decide not only how to vote but also where to vote. Students at residential colleges may register to vote using either their parents' address or their school address.

Where a student registers dictates where they have their political say. In other words, a home address versus a college address determines which local elections appear on your ballot. But for out-of-state students, this decision holds even more weight.

“For the first time in 2019, more than half of Americans were millennials or younger. … The electoral impact of these demographic shifts has been muted so far. … But things are changing.”

Registering in a different state allows you to vote in that state's elections and use your vote for president to influence various electors. The power of the youth vote is often enough to sway elections, particularly in swing states. For that reason, college campuses have become a main focus of voting law changes and gerrymandering.

With these election practices, young Americans — who possess the least amount of voting experience — face the most hurdles to casting their vote. Several states, including Michigan, New Hampshire, and North Carolina, continue to debate controversial laws that intend to stymy voter fraud while also putting up barriers to out-of-state student voting.

As residents of two states, out-of-state college students face a different set of technical quirks depending on the state where they choose to become a voter.

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3 Ways State Laws Are Disrupting the Student Vote

To vote in your home state as an out-of-state student, you must request an absentee ballot. To register in your new state — that is, where you attend college — you must establish residency. While some states allow you to register to vote in person on election day, others require you to register to vote as much as a month prior to election day.

Every state maintains its own legal and administrative technicalities. Critics of the U.S. voting system say that these technicalities aim to hold back the blue wave by making it as hard as possible for progressive young voters to exercise their rights. Meanwhile, defenders claim that the voting process is accessible to anyone motivated enough to participate.

While voting laws continue to be up for debate, election day draws closer. Right now, the biggest barricades to the college student vote include inconvenient voter registration rules and the disempowering effects of gerrymandering and voter-purge programs.

ID Requirements and Polling Place Access

Several states have cracked down on the types of personal identification they accept for voter registration. For example, some started requiring authenticated photographs and expiration dates, meaning student ID cards no longer met the criteria. As a consequence, many students were turned away from the polls.

That's what happened in Wisconsin, where the criteria for acceptable student IDs was changed to cards with signatures and a two-year expiration date. Only a small fraction of colleges' ID cards met these new specifications.

When North Carolina made a similar shift, most student IDs were either not vetted or declared unacceptable. In New Hampshire, out-of-state college students could be forced to get a New Hampshire driver's license after voting in that state — a requirement that critics argue amounts to a poll tax.

Some states started requiring authenticated photographs and expiration dates, meaning student ID cards no longer met the criteria to register to vote.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, voters may only have one address. If a college student shows up at the polls with a voter registration address at college and a driver's license showing a different home address, they'll be turned away.

In addition to the registration hurdle, students struggle to cast their ballots, which became even more difficult after a number of colleges were forced to close their pop-up polls and other temporary polling locations. In Iowa, college campuses had to close due to a law that prevents satellite voting locations in state-owned buildings.

Now, a new voting law in Florida requires "sufficient non-permitted parking to accommodate the anticipated amount of voters" at early voting locations. College campuses provide polling places to thousands of students but rarely offer extensive parking. As a result, campuses are effectively banned from serving as polling stations in the state.

Gerrymandering

Every 10 years, the U.S. map is redrawn. Following each national census, states draw new boundaries to create congressional districts with equal populations. But in many states, the pen is held by the majority party.

Historically, whatever political party is in power draws districts in order to weaken the impact of voters who oppose them, and make the most out of the voters who support them. Manipulating the redistricting process is known as gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering frequently targets underrepresented voters.

These continually shifting lines of voting districts erode the impact of voter blocs and the public's faith in the democratic process. Wesley Pegden, a mathematical sciences professor at Carnegie Mellon University, revealed that if you were to make trillions of small, random redistricting changes, 99.9999999% of them would be fairer than the current map.

Gerrymandering frequently targets underrepresented voters. In the 2018 midterm elections, the campus of North Carolina A&T State University — the largest HBCU in the country — was split into two congressional districts. In other words, students living in dorms on the north side of campus voted in a different district than those living on the south side of campus.

Students argued that by dividing the campus, North Carolina lawmakers intentionally diluted the power of the young Black vote. And the Supreme Court agreed, concluding that the creation of these new congressional districts was steeped in racism and lacked proper cause.

Voter Purge Programs

States regularly purge, or remove, voters from registration rolls. Individuals are no longer registered to vote when they move outside the state, die, or, in some cases, fail to vote in a couple of elections. The imperfect methods states use to purge names means that people with the same name and date of birth can be removed by mistake.

People of color are at higher risk of having their voter registration purged.

Often, individuals don't find out they've been purged until election day. A 2019 analysis by the Brennan Center found that counties with a history of voter discrimination have purged their registration rolls at a much higher rate, which rose when these areas no longer needed federal clearance to change their voting procedures.

Because minority voters are more likely to share names than white voters, people of color are at higher risk of being purged.

These purge programs could also disproportionately affect student voters, who are similar ages and tend to move around more frequently. Both factors increase the likelihood of being mistaken for someone else and open the door to accidental purges.

College Student Voting During COVID-19

College resources help students vote. With the closing of campuses, campus polling places, and ballot drop-off boxes, the youth vote could face even more obstacles in the 2020 election.

To offset some of these barriers, at least 16 states have delayed their primary elections or extended their deadlines for requesting an absentee ballot. Most states allow voters to send in their ballots by mail, though some require voters to request a mail-in ballot.

While several states have adopted vote-by-mail and other accessible voting practices, it could be greater motivation, rather than fewer barriers, that ultimately spurs young people to vote this November. Exceptionally low voter turnout among college students has been the norm for years, but with youth activism at a new pitch, many predict — and hope for — drastic change.


Feature Image: Jeff Swensen / Stringer / Getty Images News / Getty Images North America