The tweet storm from ex-Gov. Scott Walker, reacting to a spring election in which Wisconsin voters flipped the state Supreme Court to a progressive majority, blended hyperbole with a partisan’s fearful gaze into a bleak future.
“Young voters are the issue,” Walker declared. “It comes from years of radical indoctrination — on campus, in school, with social media and throughout culture. We have to counter it or conservatives will never win battleground states again.”
Voters in Dane County, home to the University of Wisconsin, turned out in greater percentage than any other place in the Badger State. Having tipped Wisconsin to Joe Biden in 2020, and reelected Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in 2022, voters had just elected a pro-choice justice to the bench. The high court will soon rule on a pre-Civil War law that bans abortion.
The youth vote still trails turnout by geezers, but is increasingly felt in battleground races, from Georgia to Arizona, Wisconsin to Colorado. Republicans are lately so alarmed that GOP-dominated legislatures have moved to make it more difficult to vote, even in the solidly “red” Inland Northwest states of Idaho and Montana.
“Mark my word: The next thing Republicans are going to go after is young people voting. I say (bleeping) bring it on, it’s only going to make us vote more,” tweeted newly minted Harvard grad David Hogg, a survivor of the 2018 Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Florida and organizer of March for our Lives.
The GOP-run Idaho Legislature is the latest to strike, copying restrictions pioneered in Texas. Lawmakers eliminated longstanding use of student identifications issued by Idaho high schools, colleges, universities, and technical schools. Those cards were used to register to vote and to present them at the polls. By contrast, legislation specified that a license to carry a concealed weapon is acceptable for validating a voter.
The Seattle law firm of Perkins Coe has gone to federal court seeking an injunction against the new rules, representing the League of Women Voters and a youth-oriented group called BABE VOTE. “In 2020 and 2022 Idaho saw a dramatic surge of participation and engagement by young voters,” said the firm’s brief. “Rather than applaud and celebrate those new voters, the Idaho Legislature instead chose to target them by adapting onerous restrictions plainly designed to burden their ability to participate in future elections.”
The Perkins Coie brief quotes words of Republican Secretary of State Phil McGrane: “Idaho’s elections are secure.” The legislation, the brief argues, imposes “unconstitutional burdens on the right to vote . . . without furthering any legitimate let alone compelling state interest.”
Sound familiar?. The Seattle-based lawfirm has already scored a victory in court over similar laws passed by the Montana Legislature. Big Sky lawmakers said student ID is not enough to register. They eliminated same-day voter registration and outlawed paid third-party ballot collection.
The state is appealing a 200-page ruling by Yellowstone County Judge Michael Moses, who found: “The evidence indicated that the Legislature enacted H.B. 176 to reduce voting by young people for perceived political benefit and that the legislature was well aware that H.B. 176 would have a disproportionate impact on Native American and young voters.”
The intent is glaringly obvious. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, is up for reelection next year. President Trump targeted Tester in 2018 and made four trips out west trying to beat him. Votes by students and folk in the university towns of Missoula and Bozeman, and support from Indian reservations, provide bedrocks for Tester’s political base.
Other gambits are popping up across America. Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church — where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his father, and grandfather once preached — was narrowly reelected last winter. Under a new Georgia law, only identification from public colleges can be used to register and vote. Seven out of 10 black colleges in the Peachtree State, including Morehouse College, are private.
In Ohio, only government-authorized ID is recognized at the polls, not student identification. The Texas Legislature has taken up legislation that would ban voting on college campuses. A Republican legal strategist, Cleta Mitchell, took aim at campus voting during a recent (leaked) talk to Republican donors in Ohio: “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.”
Making it easy to vote can make a difference. A big chunk of Sen. Maria Cantwell’s 2,229-vote victory over Sen. Slade Gorton in 2000 came out of provisional ballots cast by Western Washington University students in Bellingham. The Western campus did not yet have a drop box, but Democrats shuttled students to a nearby off-campus polling place.
University towns are having a big impact, helping turn some states “blue” and challenging Republican rule in others. Washtenaw County, home to the University of Michigan, delivered a 34,000-vote majority to Al Gore in 2000. Joe Biden won the county by 104,000 votes in 2020. Once a Republican stronghold, Larimer County — home of Colorado State University — has added 100,000 residents in the last two decades. It has given big margins to Biden, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, and Sen. Michael Bennet.
“Even in relatively ‘red’ places like South Carolina, Montana, and Texas, you’ll find at least one college-oriented county producing ever-larger Democratic margins,” Politico concluded in a recent analysis. A prime example is Travis County, home to the University of Texas at Austin.
Enrollment at major universities is up, but college towns also serve as magnets for highly educated residents, employees of technology industries spawned by university researchers and scientists, and those drawn by quality of life and a vibrant cultural scene. Residents of such towns are formidable when motivated, as seen in the spring supreme court vote in Wisconsin, and last summer’s election which saw Kansas voters sustain abortion rights by a 60-40 margin.
Back in the 1980s, drawn by the optimism and sunny disposition of Ronald Reagan, youthful voters swung to the Republican Party. Indeed, Republican Scott Walker now heads the Young America’s Foundation, keeper of the Reagan Ranch and described by Walker as “the premier organization working with young people in the conservative movement.”
Unlike the Gipper, today’s GOP is relentlessly negative. The Party has become a home to culture warriors who are suspicious of universities and critical of education in general. Witness Walker’s words, and efforts to politicize curriculum in Florida and Texas. Republicans in Congress have opposed gun safety legislation, action on climate change, and student debt relief. The country’s preeminent right-wing propaganda machine, Fox News, preys on resentments of elderly folk to boost its ratings.
The Democrats have given us America’s oldest president, but they are far more in sync with younger voters. As Republicans in Boise were preparing to axe student IDs, Idaho Senate Minority Leader Melissa Wintrow said, “I want to commend to our students that they are valued and that they should be engaged in the government process.”