A top GOP lawyer wants to crack down on the college vote. States already are.
Attorney Cleta Mitchell's controversial comments come amid numerous efforts in recent years by Republican lawmakers across the country to restrict voting by college students, a group that leans Democratic. And they come at a time when the youth vote has been surging. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — A top Republican election lawyer recently caused a stir when she told GOP donors that the party should work to make it harder for college students to vote in key states.
But the comments from Cleta Mitchell, who worked closely with then-President Donald Trump to try to overturn the 2020 election, are perhaps less surprising than they seem.
They follow numerous efforts in recent years by Republican lawmakers across the country to restrict voting by college students, a group that leans Democratic. And they come at a time when the youth vote has been surging.
At an April 15 retreat for donors to the Republican National Committee, Mitchell, a leader in the broader conservative push to impose new voting restrictions, called on her party to find ways to tighten the rules for student voting in several battleground states.
Mitchell’s comments were first posted online by the independent progressive journalist Lauren Windsor.
With Republicans now enjoying veto-proof majorities in both of North Carolina’s chambers, Mitchell said, the party has a chance to crack down on voting by students there.
“We need to be looking at, what are these college campus locations and polling, what is this young people effort that [Democrats] do?” said Mitchell. “They basically put the polling place next to the student dorm, so they just have to roll out of bed, vote, and go back to bed.”
“And we need to build strong election integrity task forces in those counties,” Mitchell added, naming Durham, Wake, and Mecklenburg counties — all of which are Democratic strongholds and are home to large colleges.
Wisconsin ‘is a big problem’
The Election Integrity Network, which Mitchell chairs, works to build what it calls Election Integrity Task Forces, in which volunteers aim to root out fraud and illegal voting.
Mitchell also lamented that in Wisconsin and Michigan, both of which offer same-day voter registration, polling sites are located on campuses, making it easy for students to register and vote in one trip.
“So they’ve registered them in one line, and then they vote them in the second line,” Mitchell said.
“Wisconsin is a big problem, because of the polling locations on college campuses,” Mitchell continued. “Their goal for the Supreme Court race was to turn out 240,000 college students in that Supreme Court race. And we don’t have anything like that, and we need to figure out how to do that, and how to combat that.”
The recent race for a seat on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, which was won by the liberal candidate backed by Democrats, saw record campus turnout.
Mitchell also brought up New Hampshire, which has a higher share of college students than any other state, as well as statewide elections that are often decided by just a few thousand votes, The Granite State has seen a series of efforts in recent years to impose stricter rules for student voting, despite no evidence of illegal voting by students.
“I just talked to Governor Sununu, and asked him about the college student voting issue that has been a problem,” Mitchell said, referring to the state’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu.
“He thinks it’s fixed. We just need to have an active task force to make sure it’s fixed, and do our look back about whether or not they did go back and make sure those college students who presented, who said they were residents, really were.”
Finally, Mitchell falsely claimed that, thanks to President Joe Biden, people who apply for federal student loan aid are required to fill out a voter registration form.
A White House executive order does urge federal agencies, including the Department of Education, to offer voter registration opportunities. But no one is required to register.
Banning student IDs for voting
Mitchell’s remarks weren’t focused only on student voting.
She also declared that if Republicans win full control of Virginia state government this year, they should eliminate early voting and same-day registration in the state. And she said that any group “that’s got democracy in their name — those are not friends of ours.”
But the comments about voting by college students deserve particular scrutiny because of an ongoing multi-state push to tighten the rules for student voters — including by banning student IDs for voting.
Mike Burns, the national director for the Campus Vote Project, which works as an arm of the nonpartisan Fair Elections Center to expand access to voting for college students, said the tens of millions of students enrolled in higher education across the country already face a unique set of hurdles in casting a ballot: They’re less likely than other voters to have a driver’s license or utility bill to use as ID; they’re less likely to have a car to get to an off-campus polling site; and they often move each year, requiring them to go through the registration process anew each time.
Few states, Burns added, design their election systems to address these challenges. Despite Mitchell’s fear about students rolling out of bed to vote, a 2022 Duke University study that looked at 35 states found that nearly three quarters of colleges did not have voting sites on campus.
Given this backdrop, “it’s just that much more exasperating,” Burns said, “to hear someone talk about intentionally trying to make that even harder, and to do it for political reasons.”
Surging youth vote
The issue of student voting has flared lately thanks to a recent surge in the youth vote. The midterm elections of 2018 and 2022 saw the two highest turnout rates for voters under 30 in the last three decades. And in 2020, half of all eligible voters under 30 turned out, a stunning 11-point increase from 2016.
In 2018, those voters went for Democratic candidates by a 49-point margin, and in 2020 they went for Biden over Trump by 24 points — making them easily the most Democratic-leaning age group in both years.
That’s spurred Republican legislators to take action. This year alone, three GOP-controlled states — Missouri, Montana, and Idaho — have tightened their voter ID laws to remove student IDs from the list of documents voters can use to prove their identity.
Montana’s law was struck down as a violation of the state constitution. Idaho’s is being challenged in court by voting rights groups.
One of the Idaho bill’s backers, state Rep. Tina Lambert, said she was concerned that students from neighboring Oregon or Washington might use their student IDs to vote in Idaho, then also vote in their home state. In fact, there has not been a single instance of fraud linked to student IDs in the state.
Idaho saw a 66% increase in registration by 18- and 19-year-olds between November 2018 and September 2022, by far the highest in the country, a Tufts University study found.
A fourth state, Ohio, passed a strict voter ID law with a similar impact. Ohio doesn’t allow student IDs for voting, but previously it did allow utility bills. So colleges would issue students zero-dollar utility bills to be used for voter ID purposes. The new law, which is also being challenged in court, eliminates that option by requiring a photo ID.
In Texas, where growing numbers of young and non-white voters threaten to upend the state’s politics, one Republican bill introduced this session would ban polling places on college campuses. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Carrie Isaac, has described it as a safety measure aimed at keeping outsiders off campus, since campus polling places also serve the wider voting public.
Voter advocates charged in a lawsuit that a 2021 Texas law establishing strict residency requirements would particularly burden college students, by preventing them from registering at their prior home address when they temporarily move away for college. A federal judge last year struck down much of the law, but the decision was reversed on appeal.
‘They just vote their feelings’
Efforts to make it difficult for students and other young people to vote are almost as old as the 26th Amendment, which went into effect in 1971, enfranchising Americans aged 18 to 20.
In one Texas county with a large, historically Black university, the chief voting official responded to the measure by requiring students to answer questions about their employment status and property ownership, before being stopped by a federal court in a key ruling for student voting rights.
Following the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision weakening the Voting Rights Act, Texas imposed a voter ID law that didn’t allow student IDs, even those from state universities, though it did include handgun licenses. And North Carolina passed a sweeping 2013 voting law that, among other steps, ended pre-registration of high-school students.
Two years earlier, Wisconsin passed a voter ID law that does allow student IDs from state universities, but mandates that the ID have an expiration date and have been issued within the last two years — requirements that many student IDs don’t meet. Though some colleges have created special voter IDs, advocates say the issue still generates significant confusion among students.
New Hampshire has often been a hotspot for efforts to restrict student voting. Backers of these efforts have at times argued that students don’t have as much stake in the community as other voters, since they might not stick around after college.
A 2021 bill that died in committee would have barred students from using their campus address to register. “People who go to college in New Hampshire, unless they are really bona fide permanent residents … should vote by absentee ballot in their home states,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Norman Silver, told Stateline. “It’s a matter of simple equity.”
Back in 2011, Rep. William O’Brien, then the House speaker and advocating for a bill to tighten residency requirements, was even blunter.
“They go into these general elections, they’ll have 900 same-day registrations, which are the kids coming out of the schools and basically doing what I did when I was a kid, which is voting as a liberal,” O’Brien said. “That’s what kids do. They don’t have life experience, and they just vote their feelings and they’re taking away the towns’ ability to govern themselves. It’s not fair.”
Burns, of the Campus Vote Project, said that kind of sentiment not only runs counter not only to the purpose of the 26th Amendment, but to any notion of voting as a civic good.
This is a formative process,” said Burns. “We know from research that if people start to vote at a younger age, they will stay involved. It puts them on a trajectory of being more involved in civic life for the rest of their life, and I think that’s a good thing.”
“Every community is better when more people have their voices heard. And that includes young people,” Burns added. “So regardless of who someone’s going to vote for, we think they should have equal access.”
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