By Dylan Sellers
For decades, students have been at the forefront of civic engagement, ensuring that members of their communities can advocate for themselves and make their voices heard despite the barriers placed in their way by self-interested politicians. As part of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, young Black leaders with organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized the Freedom Rides and traveled across southern states to protest segregation and advocate for civil rights, even as they endured government repression and violence in response. They also organized sit-ins and other demonstrations at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), including the 1960 Greensboro Sit-Ins organized at North Carolina A&T State University. As we remember the Freedom Rides and the broader efforts Black students made to secure civil and voting rights during the civil rights movement, we recognize that today, HBCU students are carrying on that legacy of ensuring everyone can participate fully in our society and our democracy, no matter their race or where they come from.
Today students at HBCUs are working with Fair Elections Center’s Campus Vote Project to mobilize their fellow students to participate in elections, educate them about how to navigate the voting process and confront the unique barriers they may face to having their vote count. For example, students attending an out-of-state institution must take additional steps to obtain an absentee ballot if they choose to register to vote using their home address. CVP fellows assist students by sharing information via social media, educational events and other initiatives. Sadly, voter suppression tactics have not fully disappeared since the passage of the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights protections. Over the past year, students in states like Florida, Ohio, Alabama and Georgia have been pushing back against a wave of extreme voting restrictions targeting young people and marginalized communities, as well as efforts to dilute the voting power of HBCU student communities through gerrymandering.
Between 2012 and 2016, voter turnout among HBCU students declined by an alarming 10.6 percent, in stark contrast to the long tradition of HBCU and Black students’ commitment to civic engagement and political participation. As a part of its Legacy Initiative, the Campus Vote Project partnered with the NAACP’s Youth and College Division to hold conversations with HBCU students and administrators about the civic impact of HBCU students nationwide and the barriers they still face compared to their peers at other institutions when it comes to voting. They identified issues including a lack of administrative support for student-organized civic engagement efforts, the spread of misinformation shared across campuses that discourages students from voting and a longstanding history of local election administration offices withholding resources because of stereotypes about HBCU students’ political beliefs.
Voter intimidation, gerrymandering, and burdensome restrictions on voter ID and mail-in voting are recycled efforts to suppress the votes of students, particularly Black students, that echo the barriers that young people fought against during the civil rights movement. But HBCU students successfully advocated and organized to reverse a significant decline in voting rates on their campuses, demonstrating their dedication to participating in the democratic process and empowering their communities. In the 2020 election, voter turnout among young people surged. As part of this trend, Black student turnout increased 10 percent and HBCU student voter turnout increased 13 percent. With that in mind, lawmakers should take the concerns and priorities of this voting bloc seriously and reduce the barriers set in place to keep students from voting rather than doubling down on ignoring or suppressing their voices. Elected officials and administrators should also honor the right of young voters to impact their communities through elections and provide more resources to ensure students can successfully vote in-person or by mail. Young Black people will remain undeterred in their efforts to change our society and impact our political system for the better, and will continue to carry on the legacy of the students who came before them.
Dylan Sellers is the National HBCU Manager of Fair Elections Center’s Campus Vote Project.