Youth Voter Suppression Is a Policy Problem. We Need Policy Solutions.

Light blue background with images of young people's hands holding blue and white I Voted stickers.

On April 20, a leading voice in conservative politics said the quiet part out loud: Republicans should make it harder for young people to vote. 

Cleta Mitchell is a lawyer and fundraiser who helped former President Donald Trump try to overturn the 2020 presidential election. At a private retreat in Nashville for donors to the Republican National Committee, she called for banning voting on college campuses, rolling back same-day voter registration and ending the practice in some states of automatically mailing ballots to registered voters. All of these are necessary, according to Mitchell’s presentation slides, for “any candidate other than a leftist to have a chance to WIN in 2024.”

This brazen campaign of youth voter suppression is morally wrong. It’s arguably unconstitutional under the 26th Amendment. And it is especially high-stakes in this political moment, when youth turnout has been credited for electing presidents and staving off red waves. Yet the political elites with the power to counteract this cynical youth suppression strategy are not prioritizing a key strategy for fighting back: adopting popular voting reforms that boost youth turnout. 

While Mitchell’s leaked comments were shocking to the outside world, she was merely preaching to the choir. As young Americans trend further left, they are increasingly seen by the political right as the enemy. Rather than attempt to win them over, Republicans are pushing young people out of the electorate. 

In state after state, conservative politicians are actively writing and passing laws that make it harder for young people to register and vote. Idaho now prohibits young people from using student IDs to register or vote. Ohio has long mandated that voters show a government-authorized photo ID to vote, but students are now not allowed to prove their legal residency using their student ID, official dormitory documents or utility bills. In Georgia, students at private colleges — including the vast majority of the state’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities — are barred from using their student IDs to vote, disproportionately disadvantaging youth of color. Proposed legislation in Texas would ban campus polling places entirely — a full-throated embrace of Mitchell’s strategy for a GOP victory in 2024. 

None of this is new. The current campaign of youth suppression goes back at least a decade, amply documented by legal scholars, social scientists and myriad advocacy organizations. Making matters worse, young people are also disproportionately affected by the broader GOP-led rollback of voting and election progress underway in state legislatures. Indeed, one recent study found that election environments with stricter voting laws have twice as large a negative effect on young voters as they do on older individuals.

There are three ways to approach this problem. The first is legal: challenge any potentially illegal case of youth suppression in the courts. This is a critical first step, and fortunately, pro-democracy actors are increasingly taking it. But it is also a defensive strategy that leaves young people vulnerable to further voting rights attacks.

We also need to be proactive about expanding young people’s ballot access.

The second approach is what I call “out-mobilizing suppression.” The idea is to spark enough anger in young people that they put in enough effort to overcome even the most cumbersome administrative and logistical voting barriers. To some extent, this has worked in the past: researchers have found evidence that get-out-the-vote efforts that mobilize Democrats and Black voters have mitigated the negative impact of voter ID laws on turnout.

But my own research raises concerns about whether this strategy will work for young voters. In a survey experiment, I randomly assigned nearly 5,000 people to hypothetical news articles, one of which described ongoing efforts to suppress young voters. The people who read this article did get angry. But when I asked them about their voting intentions, they were not significantly more likely to vote. When it comes to youth suppression, anger may not be the energizing force we’ve seen in the past. 

Frankly, there is also a moral problem with this approach. Young people haven’t asked to be suppressed — yet focusing on mobilization puts the onus of combating this suppression on young people themselves, who are now expected to work even harder to cast a ballot. To the extent they need outside help, nonprofit voter turnout groups — and their under-compensated staff and volunteers — are expected to fill in the gaps.

Easier, and more effective, is an approach that tackles suppression as the policy problem it is. Anti-democratic actors are passing laws that intentionally make it harder for youth to vote? Let’s adopt policies that intentionally make voting easier. 

We already know what works. Start with voter pre-registration, which allows young people who will be 18 by the time of the next election to register ahead of time, before they graduate high school and are overwhelmed by new jobs, schools and living arrangements. Pre-registration alone has been shown by scholars John Holbein and Sunshine Hillygus to increase youth turnout by between two and eight percentage points. (In states that already have pre-registration laws in place, consider requiring public schools to help students register.)

Add in same-day voter registration, so that people can register and vote at the same time at their polling place. Jake Grumbach and I found evidence that when states make this one change, youth turnout increases by three to seven percentage points.

And make sure that every registered voter is sent their ballot by mail and has a range of options for returning it. My coauthors and I estimate that Colorado’s implementation of an “all-mail voting” policy drove up youth voting rates by 10 percentage points.

In states helmed by pro-democracy lawmakers, all of these policies can and should be passed through the legislature. In states where Republicans will block such reforms, advocates and funders should pursue ballot initiative strategies that allow them to appeal directly to voters, who typically embrace election reforms that make the voting process less cumbersome.

Colleges and universities also have a role to play in fighting youth suppression. Every institution of higher learning that cares about its students should make Election Day an academic holiday, giving faculty, staff and students the time they need to vote. In 2021, Stanford University did exactly this after a year-long activism campaign helmed by undergrads Jonathan Lipman and Sean Casey.

Youth suppression is only getting worse. Yes, we need to relentlessly fight it in the courts. And yes, we must inform young people that their voting rights are under attack and provide unwavering support in overcoming voting barriers. But reactive measures, while essential, are inadequate. We also need to be proactive about expanding young people’s ballot access.

We know which policies empower youth voters. Adopting them across the country — either via legislation or ballot initiative — is critical to combating suppression. Let’s get to work.

Charlotte Hill is the interim director of the Democracy Policy Initiative at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. As a contributor to Democracy Docket, Hill writes about how structural reforms impact American democracy.