Voter Suppression Is Youth Suppression

Red hands in surgical gloves holding dentistry tools surround a blue ballot that reads “THE YOUTH VOTE” with several letters missing and instead held by the hands.

The youngest, most diverse generation in American history turned out in record numbers for the 2020 presidential election, proving young Americans’ power to shape our country’s future from statehouses to the White House. 

Young people are deeply concerned about the world they’re inheriting — and strongly supportive of progressive policies to move our country in a more positive direction. 

It should be no surprise, then, that the flood of voter suppression bills sweeping the country since 2020 have intentionally and surgically targeted the voting power of young people ages 18-35. Republicans saw what happens when young people vote — and now they’re doing everything they can to make it harder in 2022 and beyond. 

This is a critical point in the battle for voting rights, and one that is too often overlooked: when we talk about voter suppression in America, we’re very often talking about the suppression of our youngest voters specifically. 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. 

The flood of voter suppression bills sweeping the country since 2020 have intentionally and surgically targeted the voting power of young people ages 18-35.

The racial aspect of voter suppression is impossible to ignore, especially when it comes to younger voters. Census data estimates 33% of Americans under 35 are non-white — compared to just 20% of Americans ages 55 and over. Nearly 71% of white voters, meanwhile, cast ballots in 2020, compared to less than 59% of voters of color — a disparity that will only worsen with more restrictive voting laws. 

The right of young Americans to vote is constitutionally protected — the 26th Amendment guarantees that — and yet no other group in the country is disenfranchised so intentionally, so brazenly or so effectively. 

Indeed, young people are the easiest group to dissuade from voting, and the easiest to suppress. This suppression often comes in the form of innocuous-seeming provisions that don’t appear to discriminate against any group in particular. The insidiousness is only revealed by the data that comes back after an election. 

Consider, for example, policies guiding the acceptance or rejection of mail-in ballots — a particularly sneaky way of shadow-banning young people from the ballot box. 

In Florida in 2018, voters ages 18-21 saw their ballots rejected at a rate of 5.4%. Voters over 65-years-old, meanwhile, experienced a rejection rate of 0.6%. That means the ballots of one in every 20 young voters were thrown out — compared to just one in every 200 ballots cast by older people.

Or consider Colorado. In 2020, the state rejected about 29,000 mail-in ballots. Of those, 65% came from voters under 35-years-old, while just 2% came from voters over 65 years-old. 

The discrimination facing young voters is unparalleled in our democratic system. And it’s too precise, too overwhelming and too disproportionate not to be intentional. 

Since 2020, we’ve seen states pass dozens of laws posing direct challenges to young people who, by the nature of their stage in life, are more likely to be tripped up by over-complicated rules around residency and intentionally inconvenient limitations on the time, location and method of casting a ballot. 

The Brennan Center has reported that since 2020, at least 18 states have enacted 30 laws to make it harder to vote, and introduced more than 400 bills with provisions that restrict voting access. This flood of legislation is just the latest wave in the Republican Party’s long campaign to disenfranchise voters. 

My home state of Texas stands out for its egregious attacks on voting — and its intentional targeting of young people. 

Many people are aware of Senate Bill 1, the voter suppression law signed by Gov. Abbott in September 2021, that bans 24-hour and drive-through voting, creates criminal penalties for voter assistance and further restricts the state’s already restrictive vote-by-mail rules. By any measure, it’s a terrible law for Texas voters, young or old. 

Less well-known is Texas’ Senate Bill 1111, another voter-suppression bill passed in the lead-up to S.B. 1. It prohibits voters from establishing a residence for the purpose of influencing an election — meaning, it bans voting from an address where you don’t live full-time. This can only be read as an intentional attack on college students, who often find it more convenient or appropriate to register from their campus address rather than a home address. 

These arbitrary restrictions are just the latest in a long line of voter suppression techniques that disproportionately affect young Texans — others include removing mobile voting sites that were often set up on college campuses, banning student IDs as a form of identification to vote (although a handgun license is allowed!) and allowing mail-in voting for people over 65-years-old, but sharply restricting this convenient method of voting for just about everyone else. 

But this isn’t just a problem in Texas — it’s happening all across the country. 

In Arizona, Republicans pushed House Bill 2596, which would’ve eliminated early voting, no-excuse mail-in voting and emergency voting centers, an obvious response to the massive growth in early and mail-in voting, especially among young people. In the 2020 election, about 297,000 Arizonans ages 18-29 voted early, nearly matching that age group’s total turnout in 2016.

Perhaps the most blatant attack on young people’s voting rights is underway in New Hampshire, a small state where nearly 170,000 college students make up about 12% of the state’s overall population. These voters can and do decide elections, which is why Republicans are dead-set on disenfranchising them. 

In 2020, New Hampshire Republicans introduced bills that prevent people from voting in the state if they had a permanent address in another state, forbid students from registering to vote at their college address and prohibit the use of a college ID to vote — all transparent efforts to diminish young voters’ power. 

The data is clear. The trendlines are obvious. Voter suppression generally is about youth voter suppression specifically. Republicans are using every tool they can get their hands on to make it harder for young people to vote. They’re subverting the will of the people, undermining the power of the largest voting bloc in America and holding back progress on the critical issues of our time. 

It’s essential that we call out this disproportionate impact on young Americans — and it’s essential that we fight back. 

These ongoing threats underscore the importance of our work at NextGen America. As the nation’s largest youth voting organization, we use innovative digital and field strategies to organize and mobilize young people in key battleground states by providing the tools and education they need to join our democracy and exercise their power. 

We hope to use our platform to not only encourage young people to vote, but to also empower the next generation to fight for the changes our democracy desperately needs. With Republicans’ continued efforts to suppress the vote, we need new federal voting rights protections, like automatic voter registration and no-excuse vote-by-mail, that were included in several bills that Republicans blocked from passage in Congress last year. 

Making change will require advocacy in the Capitol and organizing on the ground, but it starts with recognizing the fight we’re in, and who is being attacked first and foremost.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez is the president and executive director of NextGen America.