The North Carolina NAACP’s Moral Freedom Summer organizers, shown here at a Raleigh protest, fanned out across the state to register and educate voters in advance of the November 2014 elections.
From the onset of early voting for 2014 midterm elections, new voting restrictions—inspired by Jim Crow-era poll tests say voting rights experts—began creating havoc nationwide. Not only will this year’s midterms determine which political party controls the U.S. Senate, they’re also critical because contests for 36 governors’ mansions, 435 congressional seats, and the offices of other local officials are on the ballot.
This year, it appears there’s a group targeted for exclusion from the voter rolls: minority millennials. In the past two presidential elections, the youth minorities voted heavily, arguably putting President Barack Obama in office. Off-year elections typically see a steep drop-off in turnout; the 2010 midterm election turnout rate for registered young voters (18-29 years of age) of 49 percent paled in comparison to the 78 percent of registered millennials who voted in the 2012 presidential election, according to Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg at the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement. Still, in tight contests, even a diminished youth vote can shift an outcome.
The 2010 midterms, with depressed turnout among groups that traditionally vote for Democrats, as young voters do, made way for an energized Republican base to win control of state legislatures and gubernatorial seats. That set the stage for the new wave of voting restrictions passed in state legislatures across the nation. The American Prospect set out to learn, in a series of telephone interviews, how African-American students are handling the new obstacles to ballot access that many will face on Tuesday, specifically in three states whose voter laws have seen recent action by the courts: Ohio, Texas, and North Carolina.
Ohio, historically positioned as the coveted must-win state in presidential elections, has implemented a new wave of restrictive voter measures. Curbing early voting times and ending same-day registrations, as the Ohio legislature has done, are both viewed equally as major setbacks for minority millennials.
When a federal appeals court demanded the reinstatement of the longer early-voting period, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in, allowing the restrictive measures to remain in effect until a case is tried—after the election. As explained by Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones, the Court “allowed the Ohio officials to eliminate one of five weeks set aside for early voting, as well as some evening and Sunday hours."
Why is early voting critical in Ohio?
In 2004, we witnessed lines of determined voters, who stood in the pouring rain just to exercise their voting rights. The Ohio state government decided to increase absentee voting as well as implement early voting hours in an effort to minimize the chaos. It was in 2008, Ohio’s voting demographic makeup drastically changed with an upsurge of young, minority voters. Since 2011, Ohio’s GOP-led legislature has twice eliminated the early-voting “Golden Week”—when voters can register and vote early on the same day. (After a referendum that would have restored Golden Week appeared won a place on a statewide ballot, legislators repealed the bill that would have ended it. But in 2014 the legislature again passed a bill killing Golden Week. Now, with the Supreme Court’s intervention the restrictions passed this year restrictions will be in effect during the midterms)
It is suggested that the Democratic vote may be affected, based on the fact that in 2012, 150,000 people came out to vote early—a constituency largely made up of minority millennials and working-class Ohioans.
Leah Hackney, an African-American graduate student at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio, believes these changes will have a negative impact on those young people who already lack motivation. “It’s another reason for someone to use this as an excuse to not vote. But these new laws make me feel like it’s a modern revert back to how things used to be,” Hackney said, referring to the segregation-era tactics that kept African Americans from the polls. “The government shouldn’t smile at us and then kick us like this. Don’t tell us you’re a progressive state, and then pass these types of laws.”
As Hackney sees it, though, the restrictions target more than one demographic. “I don’t think it’s simply a racial cutback, but also a class thing,” she said in a telephone interview. “Early voters consist of the working class,” Hackney explained. “When you’re telling a group of people they can only vote from a certain time and that’s during the times they’re working, you’re taking away the core vote.”
In addition to missing the importance of voting, many young voters are unaware of the new laws being put into place. At Bowling Green State University, located in the Ohio town for which it’s named, senior Darrico Harris was in disbelief when told about the new restrictions. Nonetheless, he said, for the midterms at least, his vote—or lack thereof— won’t be much affected “I don’t even know who’s running, so I doubt I’ll participate,” Harris told the Prospect. “It’s not talked about on campus and nobody knows when or how (to vote) at this point. We’re not aware of how important this election is.”
In Texas, meanwhile, on October 18—a mere two days before early voting commenced—the Supreme Court allowed the enforcement of what is considered to be America’s toughest voter ID law yet.
The law requires that voters show one of seven types of identification to cast a ballot; more than 600,000 Texas voters—mostly African Americans and Latinos—lack eligible ID, according to the Department of Justice. Adding insult to injury, the college vote is hampered by the exclusion of college student IDs and out-of-state licenses as valid forms of voter identification.
The state offers ostensibly “free IDs,” but a birth certificate is required to obtain one. However, getting a copy of your birth certificate will cost you—fees typically range between $20-40, making it difficult for poor, minority and young voters to afford. As noted in The Time Tax, a 2013 report from The Advancement Project, “as the Millennial Generation is increasingly more unemployed and underemployed—the effective unemployment rate for 18 to 29-year-olds is 16%—any extra money spent on voter ID takes away from young people paying off debt, or paying for their education, or even groceries and rent.”
Stephanie Izehuwku, an African-American senior at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, said the “lack of respect from my government” reflected in the new voter ID law made her initially disinclined to vote. “The government doesn’t care about us and that’s always been my view,” Izehuwku explained. “It’s a bunch of rich people who aren’t doing things for the greater good, but trying to push their agenda and everything is a stepping stone to them,” she added. But she has since changed her mind. She wants to make a change, even if “my government is indirectly trying to take away my rights.”
This is the question one hears from many Texan minority millennials voters: “If the government doesn’t care, why should I even vote?”
“Everyone’s vote is important,” Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program for the Brennan Center of Justice, told the Prospect. “You can’t let this setback deter you from doing what’s right. Of course in Texas, they are doing a terrible job of informing the young people of the changes. African Americans and youth voters will undoubtedly be impacted, but you can still vote,” Weiser said. (Read Weiser's primer on voting rights restrictions from the Fall 2014 issue of The American Prospect magazine, here.)
Despite the voter ID law, some college and graduate-school students are still eager to vote, Jessica Blake, an African American senior at University of Houston, being one of them. “Luckily, I have proper ID [but] I’m pretty surprised by Texas,” said Blake in a telephone interview. “Because we’re so diverse, I’d think we would be more accepting. With me being black, we’ve fought so hard to vote [that] I feel like I’d be letting my family down if I didn’t vote. One vote always helps.”
Many believe Texas legislators wrote this law with discrimination in mind. The Institute of Southern Institute’s Schumann fellow, Evan Walker-Wells, agreed with this sentiment. “The Texas court case [challenging the voter ID law] made it clear there’s a discriminatory intent,” Walker-Wells said by phone from his office in Durham, North Carolina. “Everyone knows they’re making it hard for poor, young and people of color, especially knowing that the younger generation is much more diverse than the older generation”, said Walker-Wells.
Although Texas and Ohio made controversial changes to their voting laws, North Carolina’s restrictions may alter young voter turnout indefinitely.
Beginning in 2013, North Carolina put a law into effect that, according to The Advancement Project, “decreases the early voting period by a full week and eliminates same-day voter registration during early voting; it prohibits the counting of provisional ballots cast by eligible voters who go to the wrong precinct, expands the number and scope of voter challengers… (it) also requires voters to present strict forms of current, government-issued photo identification to cast ballots, but does not accept student IDs, public-employee IDs or photo IDs issued by public assistance agencies as valid forms of identification”.
Now, North Carolina is restricting voting on college campuses, forcing students to travel to an off campus site, which are often times an inconvenience. Reporting for Facing South, Walker-Wells noted, “Students at historically black Winston-Salem State University will not have on-campus early voting polling locations. North Carolina State University, Duke University, East Carolina University, and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte have lost their on-campus sites for early voting and the general election, as well.”
After an attempt to remove the early voting site at Appalachian State University in Boone, students fought back. According to Appalachian State senior Ian O’Keefe, as reported by Huffington Post, the GOP are not playing fair for the upcoming election. “This is a way the Republican Party is attempting to win elections instead of convincing voters to vote for them, and that's just wrong,” he told the HuffPost’s Dana Liebelson.
North Carolina college students are not pleased. “It’s going to be hard for many college students,” said Shaniece Simmons, an African American senior at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “I can’t vote where I go to school because of where I’m from? That’s a problem,” she said. “With these restrictions it’s going to be difficult because there are a lot of students with out-of-state IDs.”
Why is this happening in North Carolina? Simple, said Simmons. “North Carolina is a swing state,” she explained. “We can go either way. It’s a controversial state, and we are a confusing state also.” For instance, in 2008, the state swung for Barack Obama in the presidential election. However, Simmons notes, “In 2012, the [Democratic National Convention] was here and we went Republican.”
“It takes a huge amount of people to make change that affects people,” explained Stephanie Ihezuwku, the Sam Houston University student. “You feel small, and no one’s listening. It seems like everyone is pushing an agenda…” Some African-American students, she thinks, don’t see the parallel between today’s restrictions and the old poll tests and poll taxes of the pre-civil rights era, adding, “They’re using the fact that we think their method is outdated against us.”