War on student voting: GOP bill would nix voter reg mandate for colleges

A major education bill advancing in Congress would scrap requirements aimed at encouraging student voting.

The GOP-backed measure is the latest initiative in an ongoing campaign to restrict access to the ballot for students and younger voters, who tend to vote Democratic.

On Wednesday, the House Education and the Workforce Committee approved the PROSPER Act, legislation to reauthorize funding for higher education, on a party-line vote.

One piece of the bill that has flown largely under the radar would weaken a provision of the Higher Education Act, added in 1998, that requires colleges and universities to take steps to encourage their students to vote. Perhaps most important, the measure would scrap a requirement that higher-ed institutions send an email to students entirely about voter registration. In other words, it would allow institutions to merely include a link to voter registration information as part of a longer email about other issues, making the registration content far less prominent, and inevitably leading more students to miss it.

The bill also would remove the requirement that higher-ed institutions request voter registration forms 120 days ahead of an election. And it would eliminate language making clear which elections are covered by the provision.

In place of all this, higher-ed institutions would be required merely to “make a good faith effort” (see p. 444) to distribute voter registration forms to students.

The committee rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) that would have restored these requirements and strengthened them beyond current law.

“As new voters, students don’t necessarily know how to vote, or what the voting experience will be like,” a coalition of civic engagement groups led by Young Invincibles wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to Reps. Virginia Foxx (pictured) and Robert Scott, the chair and ranking member, respectively, of the committee*. “Students arriving on campus each August have a very short window in most states before voter registration deadlines are looming, and may miss the opportunity to participate in their first elections if voter registration information is presented too late.”

Foxx told The Hill that the committee was acting on recommendations from the American Council on Education, a group of higher-education presidents, who said that the requirements are too burdensome.

But the committee’s move was in sync with the actions of several states, who lately have tried to make it harder for students to vote.

In New Hampshire, where students are an especially large part of the Democratic base, a law passed earlier this year requires voters who use same-day registration — who are disproportionately students — to show proof of residency, something many students have trouble doing. New legislation advancing in the GOP-controlled legislature would effectively require that voters register their cars in New Hampshire, again hitting out-of-state students hardest.

North Carolina’s multi-pronged 2013 voter suppression law was challenged as a violation of the 26th Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote to 18-, 19- and 20-year olds. The law eliminated same-day registration and ended a program that allowed 16- and 17-year olds to pre-register. It also imposed a voter ID requirement which, like Texas and Wisconsin’s ID law, didn’t allow most student IDs. The law was struck down last year on grounds that it discriminated against racial minorities.

* Correction: This story originally used the wrong name for the group that sent a letter to lawmakers. It is “Young Invincibles,” not “Young Indivisibles.”


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