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The New Battle Over Youth Disenfranchisement 

Laws curbing same-day registration and student ID use could stifle youth voter turnout.

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UPDATE: On April 11, 2024, the Idaho Supreme Court upheld the district court’s ruling in Babe Vote v. McGrane which found that prohibiting student IDs as voter identification was constitutional under the state constitution. On March 27, 2024, the Montana Supreme Court upheld the district court’s ruling in Montana Democratic Party v. Jacobsen, finding that laws limiting student ID use as voter identification and eliminating Election Day registration were unconstitutional under the Montana Constitution.

Voter turnout among people in Generation Z is relatively strong and growing. Gen Z — born between 1997 and 2012 — votes at higher rates than previous generations did when they were young. In 2020, voter turnout for 18– to 29-year-olds increased by 11 percentage points over 2016. In the 2022 midterm elections, Gen Z voters were even credited with having a decisive impact in multiple close elections, including Senate races in Nevada and Arizona.

That this new generation is engaged in civic life is a positive sign for our democracy and shows many young people are passionate about the future of their country. But new restrictive voting laws — some of which are currently being reviewed by state supreme courts — may stifle that progress.

Several states have passed laws barring same-day voter registration or the use of student IDs to prove identification at polling places. Many of these restrictive voting laws have been passed under the guise of making elections more secure by eliminating a source of voter fraud. But voter fraud is incredibly rare, and is not associated with student IDs or same-day voter registration.

While the measures do not clamp down on fraud, they do dampen turnout among the nation’s youngest voters. Same-day registration — which has been part of our system for half a century, since Minnesota implemented it in 1974 — disproportionately increases turnout among voters between the ages of 18 and 24 as compared to older voters, in part because young people are more likely to miss voter registration deadlines or lack knowledge about registration. Similarly, young people are less likely than other adults to have common forms of ID like passports and driver’s licenses. Notably, students may choose or be unable to obtain a new license when attending college out of state.

Laws restricting same-day registration and the use of student IDs at polling places have faced legal challenges by voting rights advocates who argue the laws discriminate against young voters, infringe on their right to vote, and more. In particular, state constitutional challenges to restrictions on same-day registration and student IDs are pending before the supreme courts of Idaho and Montana.

The plaintiffs in the Idaho case, Babe Vote v. McGrane, are organizations that register young people to vote and work to boost their civic engagement. They claim legislation eliminating the use of student ID as a valid form of identification for in-person voting and banning the use of student IDs when registering at polling places is “a surgical attack on Idaho’s youngest voters.” Under the legislation, voters are instead required to provide a state or federal ID, tribal ID, or Idaho concealed carry permit. The plaintiffs say the legislation violates the Idaho Constitution’s guarantees of the right to vote, equal protection, and due process and should be subject to strict scrutiny review.

In October, an Idaho district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims, saying that rational basis, not strict scrutiny, applies. Because the laws don’t directly remove the ability of a class of people to vote, they are not overly burdensome, the court said, adding that Idaho’s constitution allows the legislature to implement some limitations on voting. The court further ruled that the bills do not violate Idaho’s equal protection clause because the state has a compelling interest in creating uniform voting processes, as well as making sure that only legal voters can cast a ballot. The state supreme court heard oral arguments in the appeal in December 2023.

In a similar case, Montana Democratic Party v. Jacobsen, a Montana lower court came out the other way. The Montana Democratic Party and two advocacy organizations sued the state of Montana over a package of bills that included limiting the use of student IDs (they had to be accompanied by other identifying documents to suffice) and eliminating Election Day registration. Same-day registration, including on Election Day, has been available in Montana since 2005.

Following an August 2022 trial, a judge struck down the laws, finding that the Election Day registration ban violated both the constitutional right to vote and the state’s equal protection clause, and that the law limiting the use of student ID violated young voters’ rights to equal protection. The court also questioned the justifications put forward by proponents of the laws. “There is no evidence of significant or widespread voter fraud in Montana, let alone any fraud” that these laws would remedy, the judge wrote.

The Montana secretary of state appealed the decision to the Montana Supreme Court. After the Idaho trial court ruled in favor of the state in Babe Vote, the secretary filed a notice to the Montana high court citing the Idaho ruling as support for its own arguments.

Last month, Delaware’s Democratic attorney general, Kathy Jennings, urged Delaware lawmakers to amend the state’s constitution to modernize its voting laws in light of recent court rulings. The Delaware Supreme Court ruled in 2022 that same-day registration violated a state constitutional provision requiring registration be completed “not more than twenty days nor less than ten days” before an election. And on February 23, a lower court struck down under the state constitution laws allowing early voting and simplifying the process for absentee voting.

Litigation over laws restricting voting — including those targeting the youth vote — is not limited to state court. For example, the League of Women Voters filed suit in North Carolina federal court seeking to strike down a law that allows cancellation of a person’s vote if they utilized same-day registration and a single address mailer is returned as undeliverable.

These cases represent a larger trend of states passing laws that claim to help secure our elections, but in reality only suppress turnout. Such restrictions represent a threat to our democracy. They could prevent the voice of the people — especially the nation’s newest voters — from being heard in upcoming elections.

Erin Geiger Smith is a writer and editor at the Brennan Center.

Lena Pothier is a student at New York University and former intern at the Brennan Center.

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