Despite a lower court’s decision to block Ohio’s new election provisions, which would reduce the span of early voting from 35 to 28 days, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled to delay the start of early voting, one day before it was slated to begin. This decision represents only one of the bitter political battles waged since the 5-4 verdict in Shelby County v. Holder. The 2013 case struck down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — the portion that required states with histories of racial discrimination to obtain federal approval before changing voting procedures — and further compromised Section 5, which would require unlikely restoration from Congress. Changes in largely conservative state legislatures call for limiting voter registration and early voting times, as well as instating identification requirements under the duplicitous guise of “protecting voter integrity.” In the face of partisan tactics, a previously discounted demographic has taken a stand for voting rights — students. Young Americans’ legal activism and journalism to promote civic engagement demonstrates that millennials can indeed empower themselves through the political process.
From Tea Party members poll watching a Senate primary that rested on support from black Democrats to right-leaning news anchors mocking a 102-year-old woman who waited hours in line to vote, the actions of these “election integrity activists” demonstrate feigned sincerity toward the democratic process. Influential conservatives also publicly stated voter registration drives in Ferguson, a city with low civic participation among both blacks and whites, were a “disgusting” means of “fanning political flames.” Responsibility for disproportionately disenfranchising the lower-class, youth, blacks, Hispanics and women is constantly negated.
Despite rhetoric about ownership society, conservatives avoid conceding that rampant hysteria over voter fraud has been continually disproven. The objections young people have raised indicate that while millennials may have perplexing political views, their concern for voting rights is palpable.
Student journalists, particularly in states where restrictions have been proposed, have extensively investigated the impact of rules both through news and opinion coverage. College newspapers from Dartmouth College, Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill, UW-Madison and others have reported on the challenges the laws pose for youth voting rights. College students have also impressively challenged North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin laws in court, drawing greater awareness to the importance of civic participation.
Youth efforts have helped speak truth to power against the flawed arguments conservatives have presented. Voting, a constitutional right, is compared to privileges like driving, alcohol consumption and airplane travel. This false equivalency usually invokes the untrue claim that identification is necessary to purchase a firearm when private party sales do not require it — while neglecting to mention that Texas considers student identification cards illegitimate for voting, but will accept concealed weapons permits. Surveys that indicate support for identification laws are touted without prefacing that the question’s framing can easily shift the results. Suggestion is made that Florida’s 2000 election controversy that led to Bush v. Gore should inspire stricter voting laws rather than skepticism of partisanship within state legislatures and the Supreme Court. The most insulting deflection is impeccably captured in an article from the conservative outlet RedState, where blogger Martin Knight applies a straw man argument to suggest that the left is “intensely racist” for objecting to the policies his conservative counterparts instigated. He continues to suggest that minority groups that had faced systematic disenfranchisement in the past were somehow foolish for remaining vigilant about voting rights. Millennials’ refusal to permit these falsehoods to go unchallenged is a promising sign that they recognize the power of their votes and value their constitutional rights.
The initiative that college students have taken in the past year via journalism and legal action signifies that young people are not as passive as the public is led to believe. Young people who advocate on behalf of voter protections evince that they are not only engaged with the political landscape, but are prepared to act rather than stand idly on the sidelines. Their efforts reflect a healthy dose of skepticism with government, as well as a willingness to thoughtfully examine their place in it. Those who do not know their rights are in danger of losing them — it is encouraging to see that students will not abdicate their votes without a fight.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Oct. 1 print edition. Email Christina Coleburn at [email protected]