Young Voters Turned Out in Droves Despite Barriers

A group of young people waiting in a line with a red shadow, surrounded by white checks and red x's on a bright blue background.

The butter churning and beekeeping clubs were out and about. Students played lawn games and listened to live music near a polling location. It wasn’t just any other Tuesday afternoon on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis (WashU): It was Election Day 2022. 

On college campuses across the country, the energy for the midterm elections was palpable. After Democrats staved off the red wave last Tuesday, recognition started rolling in for young voters who overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates across the board. According to Tufts University’s day-after estimates, 27% of those aged 18-29 cast a ballot in 2022, the second-highest youth turnout for a midterm election in the past three decades. That figure falls just short of the 31% youth turnout rate in the 2018 midterms. Among this age group in 2022, 63% chose Democratic candidates in U.S House races.

At the University of Michigan, reports emerged about lines sprawling across the campus with students wrapped in blankets and waiting late into the night. The polls closed at 8 p.m., but by law, anyone in line before 8 p.m. is permitted to cast a ballot. Officials said that the last student voted at around 2 a.m., meaning they spent six hours waiting outside in the 40 degree weather. The students in Ann Arbor, no doubt, played a small role in Democrats’ big night in Michigan: Voters re-elected three progressive women to top statewide positions, flipped control of the state legislature for the first time in 40 years, retained a Democratic majority on the state Supreme Court and overwhelmingly approved ballot measures codifying reproductive and voting rights.

The long lines at the University of Michigan and other college campuses might have been a sign of voter enthusiasm, but it also is a telling consequence of unnecessary barriers to the ballot box. Historically, the youngest eligible voters have always been the least likely to show up to vote compared to older generations. In contrast to claims of laziness or apathy, young voters face well-established barriers, known in the political science world as high “costs” of voting. Charlotte Hill, director of the Democracy Policy Initiative at the Goldman School of Public Policy, described her research on the topic: “[Young people] have less information about the voting process and about the candidates and issues on their ballot, less time and flexibility to engage in registration and voting and less ability to balance voting with the other things going on in their lives.”

Dayna Cunningham and Kei Kawashima-Ginsbergm, two leaders at the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University concurred, writing that “most are newly eligible voters who may be unfamiliar with registration and voting processes.” The researchers previously found that non-white youth and youth without college experience more often indicated they did not have transportation to the polls or could not wait in a long voting line.

Young voter disenfranchisement isn’t just an unintended consequence of certain rules, but rather some states have designed laws to explicitly make it harder for these voters to register and cast a ballot. In New Hampshire, students compose over 10% of the eligible voting population, the highest percentage in the country. Consequently, the Granite State has a particular history of targeting young voters — introducing or passing bills that remove college addresses as acceptable voter registration addresses or requiring “an intent to make a place [their] domicile” document, for example.

This election cycle, officials in Brazos County, Texas refused to open an on-campus early voting location at Texas A&M University in College Station, the largest school in the state with nearly 75,000 enrolled students. Instead, local officials moved the early voting site to a location off-campus that required up to 30 minutes of travel. An on-campus polling site was established on the much-smaller Vassar College campus — but only after a lawsuit and court order forced the county commissioners in Dutchess County, New York to do so. Even after a court order, the county’s Republican commissioner continued to drag his feet before ultimately complying. 

While the polling place was open at WashU, students faced a host of new challenges shuffled in by an election law enacted in June of this year. Missouri’s House Bill 1878 is a sweeping overhaul to the state’s election code. “There was a lot of work across a lot of different departments here at the university to make sure that we fully understood the ramifications of the law,” Otto Brown, co-chair of WashU Votes, told Democracy Docket. WashU Votes is the school’s nonpartisan, undergraduate organization focused on voter engagement. 

The student group faced an uphill battle this year. H.B. 1878 narrows the list of acceptable forms of voter ID. Notably, it repealed Missouri’s previous law that permitted voters to present student IDs, out-of-state driver’s licenses, voter registration cards, a copy of utility bills or bank statements. Now, voters have two options — a passport or a Missouri’s driver’s license. Brown described how, in years past, most out-of-state students who chose to vote in Missouri would use a license from their home state or their student ID. 

When college students move to a different state for school, they can vote at their school address or permanent home address. The choice is fully up to the student. Brown explained how his organization urged students who intended to vote in Missouri to plan ahead, bringing passports with them to school when they returned after the summer or if they traveled home during fall break in early October. For Missouri voters who lack adequate ID, they can cast a provisional ballot instead, which will only be counted after an election official matches the ballot signature with a signature on file. Unfortunately, signature-matching can be an error-prone process. “I know from working at the polling place on campus on Election Day last week, we had a whole host of folks who chose to vote provisionally because they didn’t have an ID that met the new requirements,” Brown added.

Additionally, H.B. 1878 makes it harder for third party groups to conduct voter registration outreach, prohibiting individuals who solicit voter registration applications from being paid for their efforts. More relevant to WashU Votes, the law requires individuals who solicit more than 10 voter registration applications to be over 18, a registered Missouri voter and signed up with the Missouri secretary of state as a voter registration solicitor (a designation that requires re-registration every election cycle). “We had to make sure that, at all of our tabling events, the people who were disseminating information about voting in Missouri were registered solicitors,” Brown explained, adding that the requirements about being registered in the state of Missouri limited which students could volunteer in this role. (These provisions of H.B. 1878 have since been temporarily blocked by a court for likely violating the Missouri Constitution, but that decision did not come until after the voter registration deadline for the 2022 midterm elections.)

Just because young voters showed up to the polls on Election Day 2022 and made their voices heard doesn’t mean state lawmakers or election officials made it easy to do so. As Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, president and executive director of NextGen America, wrote: “We’re talking about the intentional suppression of the most diverse and dynamic age cohort in America, and the one that will live with the consequences of our government’s decisions for the longest.”