Fearing the impact of new voting access laws approved by several states, congressional Democrats Thursday fired off a letter to presidents of the nation’s colleges and universities imploring them to do all they can to ensure that their students are able to register and vote.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Rep. John Conyers of Michigan and Rep. Robert Brady were the lead authors of the letter, which was signed by 188 members of the House of Representatives.
“The right to vote is the most powerful weapon we have in a democracy,” the letter states. “Yet with state voting registration laws constantly changing, often students can be left out in the cold.”
“Restrictive residency and identification requirements, inconveniently located polling places, inadequate information have created difficulties for college students trying to exercise their right to vote,” the letter continues. “With state voting registration laws constantly changing, it is important that students be supplied with complete and correct information about registering and voting.”
The letter asks college and university presidents to “consider providing voter registration information and voting guides for first year students during their initial registration or orientation” and for campus officials to reach out to “local and state election officials to help students with registration and residency requirements.”
“Further, you may wish to look at ways to turn your campus into a voter registration site and polling place,” the letter says. “Long lines have plagued polling locations for years. By working with your local and state election officials you may be able to decrease the amount of time required to cast a ballot, increase participation and increase confidence in the voting process.”
Lawmakers, civil rights and civil liberties advocates have expressed concern about the potential impact that new voting access laws approved by more than a dozen mostly Republican-controlled states will have on young, minority, elderly and poor voters who tend to vote Democratic.
The laws include having people show government-approved photo identification in order to register or vote; shortening or ending early voting periods; curtailing voter registration drives by third-party groups like the NAACP or the youth-oriented Rock the Vote; and rescinding voting rights of convicted felons who’ve served their time.
The new laws may have a major impact on the race between incumbent President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. States that have approved changes in their voting laws account for 171 electoral votes this year, 63 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
Opponents of the laws said most of them appeared aimed at suppressing black and Hispanic votes. But some of the new measures also seem to target college students. In Texas, for example, a University of Texas student photo ID is not acceptable for voter registration but a state-issued concealed gun license is.
In June, New Hampshire Democratic Gov. John Lynch vetoed a voting access bill passed by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature that would have made it difficult for out-of-state college students to vote.
Under the bill, various forms of ID would have been accepted to vote in this fall’s elections, including student ID, but only driver’s licenses, state-issued non-driver’s identification cards, passports, or military ID would be allowed in later elections.
Before the law passed, New Hampshire House Speaker William O’Brien told a Tea Party group that students are “foolish: and usually “vote their feelings.” “Voting as a liberal,” O’Brien told the group, according to the New York Times. “That’s what kids do.”
Lynch said the bill was “overly broad and will effectively require resident seniors, as well as retirees and young persons coming from out of state to register a car and apply for a New Hampshire license in order to vote. There is no compelling state interest for this requirement.”