Students Fight Back Against Voter ID Law That Allows Gun Licenses But Bans Student IDs

Members of the Nashville Student Organizing Committee stage a silent protest in the gallery of the House chamber in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, March 24, 2014. The group opposes a state law that prevents student IDs to be used to vote in Tennessee. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ERIK SCHELZIG
Members of the Nashville Student Organizing Committee stage a silent protest in the gallery of the House chamber in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, March 24, 2014. The group opposes a state law that prevents student IDs to be used to vote in Tennessee. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ERIK SCHELZIG

Under Tennessee law, a handgun carry permit can be used as ID when casting a ballot, but a student ID card cannot. The state also includes college and university faculty ID cards as acceptable forms of ID even though they are nearly identical to student IDs cards.

Voter ID measures, which are currently enforced in 31 states across the country, have disproportionately blocked young minorities from casting ballots. Most efforts to overturn the laws have been led by civil rights and voting rights advocates, but in Tennessee, a group of students decided to take a stand this month and are leading the charge against their state’s discriminatory law.

“If [voter ID laws] are going to exist, we want the broadest ID list possible,” Jon Sherman, a staff attorney with the Fair Elections Legal Network, told ThinkProgress. “Picking and choosing between different forms of perfectly valid and secure IDs is an effort to skew the electorate.”

The Nashville Student Organizing Committee and a group of nine students from Fisk University and Tennessee State University, both historically black colleges, filed a lawsuit in early March against the state, alleging that excluding student IDs from the acceptable voter ID list violates the 26th Amendment, which enshrines the right to vote to qualified citizens 18 years of age and older, as well as the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. They also say the state does not allow voters to present out-of-state ID cards, which are widely held by college students living in Tennessee, therefore discriminating against out-of-state students.

“At every step of the voter ID law’s evolution, Tennessee state legislators have purposely fenced out college and university students, especially targeting out-of-state students, rejecting multiple bills that would have added student ID cards to the voter ID list,” the complaint said.

The suit also alleges that while the state has made it more difficult for students to vote, it has eased restrictions on older voters. Tennessee recently lowered the age for older people to vote absentee without excuse from 65 to 60 — the state only allows absentee ballots for voters who have a credible excuse — and added public sector retiree cards as acceptable ID.

“They’ve put a thumb on the scale to make it harder for students to vote and they’ve simultaneously made it easier for older voters to cast their ballots,” said Sherman, who is representing the students in the litigation.

Tennessee’s strict voter ID law was passed in 2011 and took effect in 2012. Legislation that would have added student IDs as acceptable forms of ID was defeated in both 2012 and 2013. The first time around, state Rep. Curry Todd (R) justified the exclusion by saying student ID cards can be “duplicated online” and that students use them to “get into nightclubs,” according to the complaint. And in 2013, state lawmakers said on the Senate floor during debate that student IDs are “easy to forge” and that fake students IDs are “prevalent.”

“The excuse is always that student ID cards are easy to duplicate,” Sherman said. “Well, they don’t have any evidence to back that up and the fact of the matter is that we have evidence that there are forms of state-issued IDs that are actually as secure or less secure. There are IDs that can be faked it’s not exclusive to student IDs, but if you want to exclude students from the electorate, then it’s a convenient excuse.”

A U.S. Government Accountability office report last year found that as a result of the voter ID law, turnout for Tennessee voters aged 18 to 23 dropped by around 4 percentage points. Overall, the report said that the voter ID law in Tennessee contributed to a drop in turnout between 2.2 and 3.2 percentage points.

Tennessee is one of nine states with strict photo voter ID requirements and one of three states — along with Texas and South Carolina — that currently ban students from using their university or college IDs when casting a ballot. Although only three states have laws on the books disallowing student IDs, the laws are part of a larger nationwide movement to disenfranchise students by blocking their access to the polls with voter ID.

Like their counterparts in Tennessee, a group of North Carolina students filed a suit against voter ID last year, the first legal action filed on behalf of students challenging a voter ID law. North Carolina’s voter ID law, which will go into effect in 2016 unless a court strikes it down, also prevents students from using their university IDs.

College students and university employees also put pressure on Wisconsin to overturn its restrictive voter ID law, which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court shortly before the 2014 election. Had the last-minute ruling not been handed down, more than 32,000 out-of-state students who attend public universities in Wisconsin would have been prevented from voting because the law would have forbidden student IDs or out-of-state ID cards.

Texas’s voter ID law, which also excludes student IDs but allows gun licenses disenfranchised hundreds of voters during the 2014 election.

Banning student IDs for voting is just one of several ways Republican lawmakers have tried to restrict student voting. Other popular suppression tactics include limiting same-day registration, which many students rely on, and making it harder for students to claim residency where they go to school.

Many of the attempts are visible efforts to skew the electorate away from younger voters, who are more likely to support Democratic candidates. The New Hampshire House Speaker even admitted legislation to make it harder for students to vote in their college towns was intended to discourage “foolish” kids from voting because they tend to be more liberal.