Pass the For the People Act to end youth voter suppression

By Jonathan Schwartz, Kevin Ballen and Katya Ehresman

2020 was the year of Gen Z. After years of leading movements around climate justice and criminal justice, young people turned out in record numbers and were the focus of political and media attention. CIRCLE at Tufts University estimates that 50% of young Americans aged 18–29 voted in this past election, compared to 42–44% in 2016. But thanks to the existing voter suppression policies that have been targeting young voters for decades, it wasn’t easy. At this moment, we have a once in a lifetime choice — to let our government get away with radically restricting our rights & representation or see them radically protected and expanded. We were a big and formidable voting bloc leading up to November, and we can maintain that power by urging our representatives to prioritize passing the For the People Act.

More than 250 bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year that would make it harder for Americans to vote. These bills include stricter voter ID laws in New Hampshire, Arizona, and Florida, fewer early voting options in Georgia, Missouri, and South Carolina, and absentee voting restrictions in Texas, Indiana, and New York. Policies like these make voting less accessible for everyone, but have a particular impact on young people, like us.

While the youth vote got a lot of attention last year, the ways in which our votes are suppressed have gone largely uncovered. As student voting advocates and organizers, we know first-hand how difficult it can be for students to cast their votes. At the University of Texas, partisan, nonpartisan, and apolitical groups alike came together to form a coalition aimed at educating their peers about voting. Despite the most enthusiasm ever seen on our campus around voting, students were stuck in more than three hour lines at our on campus polling location. Students had to leave the line and come back multiple times so that they wouldn’t miss class or work.

Voter suppression affected students even in places widely thought of as voter-friendly. At Harvard, hundreds of students faced complications. One student from New York City, who was living on campus in Massachusetts, called her Board of Elections at least four times to get a hold of them after her absentee ballot didn’t arrive. Not until we called the Attorney General’s Office did we learn that there was nothing this student could do, and she was prevented from voting in her first presidential election.

On all of our campuses, we helped students navigate the labyrinth of forms, deadlines, and rules for registering to vote that are different for each state and change from year to year. Our dedicated organizers reached out to every student individually to make sure they knew how to register to vote, when the deadline was, whether they could do so online or where they needed to send their forms, how they could request an absentee ballot or locate their nearest polling location, and what form of ID they would need. Every form to print out, envelope to mail, and deadline to track down is a hurdle for college students. And while we’re grateful our teams were there to simplify and explain the process, it shouldn’t take dozens of volunteers to help students exercise their right to vote.

The For the People Act is a critical step to reduce the voter suppression we face as young people. The bill’s same day registration provision would allow students the flexibility to register to vote when absentee ballots might not arrive or when they may have recently moved to or from campus. Expanded early voting would provide students flexibility to vote without fear of missing a class, exam, or work shift. Online voter registration and postage-paid absentee ballots would free students of the surprisingly difficult task of locating a printer, envelope, postage stamp, and mailbox on campus. And funding for campus voting coordinators would encourage administrators to support and grow organizing efforts, like ours, which help students register and vote.

This is a once in a generation opportunity to expand political access for young people and curb voter suppression nationwide. For years, young people have been asked to invest in and trust a political system that has been rigged against us in too many ways. Now, members of the Senate have a remarkable opportunity to improve access to the representative democracy we all want to believe in. Even if we aren’t organizing for an upcoming election, our momentum now will improve access and turnout for elections to come. We can’t step off the gas. Let’s put the pressure on.

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Jonathan Schwartz, Yale University ‘21

Kevin Ballen, Harvard University ‘22

Katya Ehresman, University of Texas Austin ‘21

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Fair Elections Center

National nonpartisan, nonprofit voting rights organization in Washington, DC that uses litigation, public education, & advocacy to remove barriers to voting.