The GOP Is Pushing to Steal Students’ Votes

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Last week in Wisconsin, the state Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could invalidate the state’s comically, ludicrously, preposterously gerrymandered maps. If the court strikes those maps down, it will likely mean the end of the GOP’s decadeslong domination of the statehouse — and it will be because of what happened in Dane County in April.

Almost a quarter million voters turned out in Dane, home of University of Wisconsin, for a spring special election — several thousand more voters than turned out in Milwaukee, a county with almost double Dane’s population. A staggering 82 percent of Dane voters cast ballots to elevate liberal Judge Janet Protasiewicz to the state Supreme Court. Protasiewicz — whose vote could decide the gerrymandering case — ended up winning by 11 points.

Coming on the heels of the 2022 midterms — when Wisconsin led the nation in youth turnout in the country — the GOP judicial candidate’s April humiliation stunned the party. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker put it plainly: “Young people are the issue.”

“We’ve got to turn it around if we’re going to win again,” Walker, now the president of a conservative youth organization called Young America’s Foundation, told Fox News. The power that young voters wield was not exactly a revelation to Walker; as governor 12 years earlier, he signed a law making it harder to use a student ID to vote, prompting universities in Wisconsin to offer IDs that met the state’s new standards for free.

Student engagement has only soared in Wisconsin in the years since, but that hasn’t stopped the GOP from pulling pages from the same playbook. Across the country this year, targeted efforts to disenfranchise student voters have ramped up as election after election proved just how critical the bloc is to guarantee Democratic victories. With encouragement from influential GOP operatives, those efforts — which met with middling success in ‘23 — are poised to escalate in 2024. And they speak to a growing fear with which Republican officials and strategists regard young voters.

In Wisconsin, the GOP-controlled legislature has seized every opportunity to try and block students from voting. “We’ve seen really strong student engagement in our last couple of elections,” Morgan Hess, executive director of the Wisconsin Assembly Democrats, tells Rolling Stone. “And suddenly, we’re seeing new legislation that would prohibit student’s ability to vote.”

Hess points to GOP efforts over the past several years to make it harder to register, eliminate drop boxes, shorten early voting, increase residency requirements, and reduce polling locations — mostly in Madison and Milwaukee. “These are very targeted operations that serve to further entrench the power that they already have,” says Hess.

Months after their April routing, party functionaries at the Wisconsin GOP’s convention mulled a resolution demanding college students to vote absentee in their hometowns; one supporter of the resolution declared students had “hijacked” his city. The resolution failed to advance after another official raised the possibility that attacking students’ right to vote could backfire — an argument that seems prophetic in retrospect, as a growing number of polls show Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, outpolling Joe Biden with young voters.

Nevertheless, Republicans in state legislatures across the country this year have proposed laws targeting the student vote. In New Hampshire, House Republicans introduced a bill that would have prohibited any college students who pay out-of-state tuition from voting, and require the state’s colleges to provide the secretary of state with a list of eligible voters. Lawmakers “want the elections to be the reflection of those who reside in New Hampshire towns and who ultimately bear the consequences of the election results,” said Republican Rep. Sandra Panek, who introduced the measure in committee. (The bill was eventually killed.)

The same month, a GOP lawmaker in Texas introduced a bill that would ban polling places at colleges and universities. (That bill has not advanced out of committee.) In Virginia, there was a failed effort to repeal a law that allows anyone 16 or older to register to vote if they will be 18 by the next major election. And, according to the Voting Rights Lab, legislation seeking to change the rules around student IDs was introduced or enacted in at least 15 states this year.

It’s all part of a concerted strategy advanced by GOP operatives like Cleta Mitchell — one of the central figures behind Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. At a summit a few weeks after Wisconsin’s April special election, Mitchell told Republican donors that the party must do more to limit campus voting in swing states like Wisconsin “for any candidate other than a leftist to have a chance to WIN in 2024.”

Students and their advocates are pushing back against these efforts. In Wisconsin, leaflets distributed on campus ahead of April’s special election included information educating voters about the state’s ID requirements. In Idaho — the state that saw the largest increase in voter registrations from 18- and 19-year-olds ahead the 2022 midterms — a law set to go into effect Jan. 1, which bans the use of student IDs to register to vote or cast a ballot, is being challenged in lawsuits by the organization Babe Vote, the League of Women Voters and March for Our Lives Idaho. The groups claim that the law violates constitutional protections against age discrimination in voting.

“Young people are the reason why Biden won in 2020 and Democrats up and down the ballot won in 2022 and 2023,” says Abhi Rahman, national communications director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “If Gen Z continues to vote, we’re on the cusp of the most progressive era in our country’s history. Republicans know this as well, and that’s why they’re doing everything they can to stop young people from voting, including the fight for restrictions that we’re seeing play out in states like Wisconsin today.”

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