University of Texas Students walk an early voting site in on the campus of University of Texas, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. Early primary voting for began Tuesday for Texas and Arkansas ahead of Super Tuesday 2020. [RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Rbb Early Voting

Editor’s Note: Debra Cleaver is the founder and CEO of VoteAmerica, a nonpartisan nonprofit which builds technology to simplify political engagement, increase voter turnout and strengthen American democracy. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Last month, Wisconsin held an election to fill an open seat on the State Supreme Court – the kind of local election that normally gets ignored by most people. But this year, the stakes were incredibly high: Whoever won this election would have a chance to set precedent on a number of hot button issues, including abortion and future legislative maps, which could potentially shape the outcome of the 2024 presidential election.

Debra Cleaver

At VoteAmerica, the voting engagement nonprofit that I run, we knew this election was critical for Wisconsin voters, and it was important for all voices to be represented in the election. So we tapped into our campus networks and began a massive education campaign to alert Wisconsin’s college students to the stakes of the upcoming election.

On 24 campuses across the state, we placed ads in newspapers and email newsletters, blanketed the campus with posters, put up billboards and partnered with student influencers. All these communications channels combined to share a simple message: Election Day was April 4.

When the election results came in, it was clear that our work had been a success. Not only did turnout set a new record, but youth turnout in particular was also quite high.

The city of Eau Claire’s Ward 20, which covers the upper campus of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, saw the highest turnout in all of Eau Claire’s 77 voting wards, with votes up more than 400% over a state Supreme Court election just four years earlier. Other campus wards also showed up in impressive numbers. According to NextGen America, at one of the main polling locations for the University of Wisconsin-Madison freshmen, the vote count was more than 11 times what it had been in 2019. For VoteAmerica, this seemed like a clear win for democracy.

But not everyone felt that way. Just a week and half later, Cleta Mitchell, a conservative strategist and board member for the right-leaning Bradley Foundation, was complaining about that youth turnout. In leaked audio obtained by the Washington Post, Mitchell can be heard asking at a GOP retreat, “What are these college campus locations? What is this young people effort that they do?”

To Mitchell, enabling college students to vote more easily is apparently an affront. “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,” she reportedly told donors. (Mitchell did not respond to the Washington Post’s request for comment.) On Twitter, former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker appeared to agree, blaming the “radical indoctrination” of younger voters for Republican losses.

Mitchell and Walker aren’t the only ones who have a problem with college students getting out the vote. Around the country, Republican-controlled states are targeting the youth vote, with a particular focus on college voters — even though voting, and voting access, should not be seen as partisan issues.

Proponents of these bills say they’re just taking the necessary steps to prevent voter fraud. But perhaps we should start calling these tactics what they actually are: acts of voter suppression.

To many people, the idea of college students as targets of voter suppression might sound odd. Young people, we’re told, are apathetic, uninterested in showing up at the polls. But a close examination of voting laws shows that many states frequently target the youth vote — using a variation on the tactics that have long been used to suppress turnout from low-income Black and brown voters.

An analysis of 2022 youth turnout conducted by Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) found that states with the highest youth turnout had policies like automatic and same day registration. In contrast, states where youth turnout was low had more barriers, including voter ID laws and more onerous voter registration processes.

Indeed, in states where an ID is required to vote, use of student IDs – sometimes the only form of identification a young person has – is often highly restricted, if not banned outright. In Texas, student IDs are not considered a valid form of voter identification, even if they’re issued by a Texas public university. Ohio recently banned the use of utility bills, bank statements and other documents college students often use to prove residency as a form of identification. And while Georgia does allow some student IDs to serve as voter identification, it blocks use of IDs from private universities, which puts a great burden on students from the state’s private historically Black colleges and universities.

Another popular tactic? Making it harder for college students to vote by limiting the number of polling places on campus — or, if a Texas proposal goes through, even eliminating campus polling stations outright. Mitchell’s quip about the horrors of college students being able to slip a quick vote in between naps? It’s a mindset that’s shaping state voting laws.

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Recent elections – including Wisconsin’s 2023 state Supreme Court election, the 2022 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential elections – have made it clear that young voters aren’t apathetic at all. In many cases, they’re simply denied the resources they need to be educated and engaged voters.

When you tell young people where to vote, how to vote and what the stakes are, they have the potential to show up in droves. And that, apparently, is terrifying for many conservative politicians – perhaps because when young people do get past the many barriers to voting, they tend to favor Democratic candidates by wide margins.

There are plenty of ways to court the youth vote. Young people care about combating climate change, and are eager for innovative solutions that will protect the environment. They want to hear policy platforms that will improve job opportunity and security and make health care, including reproductive care, more accessible for everyone.

But coming up with a platform that addresses these issues takes real hard work. For many politicians, it’s easier to do everything they can to ensure that young people simply don’t get the opportunity to vote.