In 1840, at age 21, Frederick Bailey — newly emancipated following his successful escape from slavery on a Maryland plantation — paid a $1.50 poll tax and exercised his right to vote in Massachusetts, for the first time ever, as Frederick Douglass. Douglass committed what some today would call voter fraud (he was a fugitive, after all…), but as David Blight, author of the biography “Frederick Douglass: Prophet Of Freedom,” (Simon & Schuster, 2018) emphasized on NPR’s “Throughline” podcast, “He will vote the rest of his life, whether he’s in Massachusetts, New York or Washington, D.C., which tells us something about what he thought about that particular right and power.”
The youth’s right to vote reached a milestone this past July 1, with the 50th anniversary of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18. The irony is that as the nation recognizes this expansion, and a new crop of young voters emerge to register and cast ballots, many states across the country are passing an array of new restrictive voting laws. As of July 2, U.S. News counted 17 total states that have made voting more difficult in some capacity, including Georgia (placing limitations on absentee ballots), Arizona (trashing ballots cast in the wrong precinct), Florida (making it ardous to prove intentional racism) and Iowa (restricting early voting).
Georgia, the first to launch the assault, caught the ire of the Department of Justice, who wrote in a lawsuit in June against the state that, “Laws adopted with a racially motivated purpose, like Georgia Senate Bill 202, simply have no place in democracy today.”
Yet the spread of disenfranchisement appears to be expanding; and, it’s not new. The nation has a long history of suppressing the Black vote that goes as far back as the start of Reconstruction in 1863. In 2019, when the nation was in the heat of the 2020 presidential campaign, the New York Times published the article “The Student Vote Is Surging. So Are Efforts to Suppress It,” specifically calling out Texas who closed a plethora of college voting sites across the state. Even President Joe Biden lamented the bad days of voter restrictions in the South, calling Georgia’s new law “Jim Crow in the 21st Century.”
The presidents from four Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in Georgia: Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine and Spelman College, also released a statement, in April, writing:
“The Atlanta University Center Consortium and its member institutions…view the passage of SB 202 as a direct assault on the voting rights of all citizens, particularly African Americans, the poor and other underserved communities. The “Election Integrity Act of 2021” stands at odds with the overarching social justice missions of our member institutions. Thus, it is our duty and desire to reassert our community engagement to educate the citizens of Georgia and those who attend our institutions of higher learning about the negative impact of this legislation on their rights to vote.”
For new voters and advocates who work with young voters, these revised laws are troublesome. “As a young BIPOC voter, I was frustrated by the sweeping voting law restrictions across the country,” said 19-year-old Whitney Williams, a rising junior at Spelman College. “Many of the voter suppression laws were introduced towards the end of the state’s legislative session. As a result, raising awareness about the new laws and providing information to voters was very difficult. In addition, these laws strengthened the barriers that make it harder for communities and other underrepresented communities to vote.”
Genesis Ivey, a Democracy Fellow with Fair Elections Center’s Campus Vote Project (CVP) and a first-year student at the HBCU Fort Valley State University in Georgia, is also aware of these barriers. “These limitations include requiring new forms of identification to vote, no food or drink being passed out at the polls, and shorter election deadlines,” said Ivey. “Instead of seeing more voters at the polls, I feel these restrictions will discourage some of our young voters. Georgia’s new voter restrictions will affect new voters like myself in future elections and I know that some will not have the patience or resources to overcome some of these limitations.”
Ivey had her own patience tested when she voted for the first time last year for the 2020 presidential election, a few months after turning 18. “This experience is something I will never forget. I registered to vote in my hometown of Warner Robins, GA, [where] it was cold, and the line was wrapped around the building,” Ivey recalled. “I was accompanied by my mother. It took us about three hours to make it in and out, but it was worth it. I also voted in the Georgia Senate runoff election.”
As a Democracy Fellow, Ivey works to engage students on her campus around voting and has helped to host virtual voter registration drives, instructional webinars on absentee voting, and more. In addition to the cache of Democracy Fellows who work on helping students across the country vote at higher rates. Ivey noted that at her school, the Student Government Association, the NAACP, Greek Life and many more organizations on campus have stepped in to register young voters. These civic engagement initiatives appear to work, considering the record-breaking youth turnout for the 2020 presidential election, which was also called the most diverse electorate ever by the data aggregator Catalist.
Because Millennials and Gen Z’s are the country’s most diverse populations, it is important to address racial justice and equity issues when performing voter outreach, and HBCU students have specific concerns regarding authenticity and consistency. “Last year, we conducted roundtables with HBCU students from across the country to find out what kept them from using the ballot,” said Dylan Sellers, National HBCU Manager for the CVP. His organization published its findings in a Legacy Initiative Insights Brief. “Those students told us that their voting barriers landed in four major buckets: A lack of administrative support for campus work; contentious relationships with local elected officials and offices; misinformation and counterproductive communication with fellow students; and intermittent engagement with candidates and third-party organizations.”
But hope is not lost. Mike Burns, the national director of the CVP noted the For the People Act, which the House passed, as it addresses voter suppression laws, supporting colleges and universities with civic engagement for students and racial justice issues. And, he said that while the nation is seeing an increase in restrictions, there’s a countermovement underway to further expand enfranchisement. “In the time that I’ve been doing this, nearly a decade, we have seen increased engagement of young people in more traditional civic engagement spaces, we’ve seen more protests and more volunteering, and that also correlates with the higher registration and turnout rates from the last couple of election cycles,” Burns said.
Williams agrees. “I am most hopeful about increased voter turnout,” she said. “The efforts to mobilize and educate voters, especially young voters, broke voting turnout records in Georgia.”
Last year for the 2020 presidential election, when many states leaned into absentee and early voting because of the pandemic, some progressive states are continuing to lean into that innovation with the goal to keep those expansive voting systems in place in the future. With states like Illinois, California and Maryland (Douglass’ former slave state), Burns said new laws have passed to increase civic engagement on campuses, whether that means an early voting site or a point person who can answer questions. Surely, Douglass would approve.
N. Jamiyla Chisholm manages creative content at Barnard College and is the author of the upcoming memoir “The Community.” As a journalist, she focuses on culture, gender and sexuality, and history.