On July 24, 2018, students won a major victory for themselves in securing equal access to the right to vote. In an unprecedented ruling, League of Women Voters v. Detzner, a federal district court in Florida granted a preliminary injunction in the students' challenge to Florida’s ban on early voting polling locations on college campuses. The court held that the ban violated the Twenty Sixth Amendment because the policy intentionally discriminated on account of age.
What's remarkable about this case is not only its trailblazing legal holding but its roots in student self-advocacy. The story begins in 2014, when students at the University of Florida tried to work with election officials to establish an early voting polling location on campus after the students realized that Florida students relied heavily on early voting. But sadly, the students weren't rewarded for their civic engagement. Instead, the students' struggle to win a polling location near their residences culminated in Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner and Governor Rick Scott issuing an order barring election officials from placing early voting polling locations on any college campuses—affecting more than 800,000 Florida residents. But the students were not deterred. The students sued and the court held that Florida's policy was “unexplainable on grounds other than age.”
The Twenty Sixth Amendment—ratified in response to growing youth activism after World War II—provides that “[t]he right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any other state on account of age.” But as the Florida case illuminates, however, increasing barriers to student voting—seemingly erected to deter student civic participation—undermine the promise of the Twenty Sixth Amendment.
The effects of this discrimination are discrete. The turnout rate for college-aged youth (18-20) is among the lowest of any demographic the country, averaging at less than forty percent during presidential elections and dropping below twenty percent during midterms. Taken together, state policies that restrict access to absentee ballots, require limited forms of voter photo ID (often not including student ID), and provide limited polling locations are consistently reported as the primary reason that students do not vote.
Student activists have long tackled these barriers outside of the courts. In New Hampshire, students have actively fought against policies of student voter suppression. Most recently, New Hampshire students rallied against new policies in the state that will restrict access to voting by creating an effective poll tax on out-of-state students by requiring them to obtain New Hampshire drivers' licenses and registration in order to establish residency to vote. For years, students in Wisconsin and Tennessee have sought common-sense solutions to change those states’ policies that restrict the use of student ID to vote. Likewise, I began as a student activist at Louisiana State University, lobbying for a law that now allows Louisiana college students to use their student ID as voter ID.
But the early voting case in Florida marks a new chapter in student voting rights advocacy. This time, students are invoking their Twenty Sixth Amendment rights in their years-long battle with the state. Under that amendment, age discrimination in voting against those over the age of 18 is no more constitutional that race or sex discrimination in voting. The court correctly noted that “addressing intentional discrimination does not require kid gloves.” At a time when the national conscience is again taking young voices seriously, legal challenges under the Twenty Sixth Amendment offer a promising opportunity to eliminating student voting barriers.