In November 2016, Republicans in New Hampshire gained complete control of the state government. GOP Representative Michael Moffett was nonetheless displeased with the results. Moffett logged onto Facebook, where he griped that “[m]any out-of-state college students in Durham, Plymouth, Keene, Manchester, Henniker and Hanover registered late and most voted Democrat… [Former GOP Sen. Kelly] Ayotte had her reelection stolen from her by out-of-staters…and Clinton’s razor-thin victory was stolen as well.”
Moffett was not alone in his irritation at these impertinent young people exercising their right to vote. State Sen. William Gannon publicly bemoaned the fact that students who attend school in New Hampshire don’t “really have skin in the game.” His colleague Sen. Dan Innis agreed: “If you’re from Boston and you’re up here eight months out of the year and you’re registered to vote there, you shouldn’t be able to vote here.” All three men would go on to support HB 1264, a measure that passed both chambers of the state legislature last year and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.
The law, set to go into effect this July, would force residents with out-of-state driver’s licenses to obtain a New Hampshire ID and register their car in the state before voting — or else face criminal charges punishable by up to a year in jail. The fees to make the switch can run into the hundreds of dollars, according to the ACLU, which filed suit Wednesday on behalf of two Dartmouth students challenging the law. The civil liberties group is arguing the fees constitute a poll tax on college students, young voters and those new to the state.
“Younger voters historically have a lower turnout, and I think that politicians start to get nervous when they see, in 2018 for example, that the young people’s turnout was a lot higher,” says Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney for the ACLU. “I think a lot of politicians see that and they get concerned that the dynamics of elections are going to change if young people start voting. I think there is an attempt to suppress the votes of young voters.”
It’s not just New Hampshire — conservative politicians in Wisconsin, Arizona and Florida have, in recent years, sought specifically to limit college students’ access to the ballot box. At the same time, students are also disproportionately impacted by voter ID laws, on the books in some 34 states.
“It’s worth questioning why anybody in politics is motivated to do this,” Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and now a candidate for president, tells Rolling Stone. “If you stand to be at a disadvantage when more people vote, then the problem isn’t with the voters — the problem is with you. Why wouldn’t we want every eligible voter to vote and win fair and square a contest of ideas among those voters?”
As a candidate for president in 2020, and someone who is making millennial concerns a centerpiece of his campaign, Buttigieg has a vested interest in making sure young people can get to the polls. New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary has the potential to make or break those presidential ambitions. But, he says, everyone should share that interest.
“The bottom line is that young people have as much or more interest as anybody in political decisions that are being made,” Buttigieg says. “My observation has been that our generation, as the one that has provided the most troops in the post-9/11 wars, that will be on the receiving end of climate change decisions, and in a thousand other ways will be impacted by these decisions — the longer you’re planning to be here, the more you have a stake in every decision that is made.”
Youth turnout surged in 2018, tipping close elections in at least three states, according to a study by Tufts University. Voters under 30 preferred Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers to his rival, Scott Walker, by a 23-point margin, helping Evers squeak out a 1.2 percentage point win over Walker. In Nevada, they chose Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen and Gov. Steve Sisolak over their Republican rivals by 37 and 31 points, respectively, carrying both to victory. And in Montana, overwhelming, 40-percentage-point support for Democratic Sen. Jon Tester contributed to his victory over Republican Matt Rosendale.
And the power of younger voters is only expected to grow in the coming years. This year, millennials are projected to surpass baby boomers as the largest living adult generation, according to the Pew Research Center. They still lag boomers’ voter participation levels, comprising 27 percent of the voting-eligible population in 2016 compared to boomers’ 31 percent, but that could change before the next presidential election. Some 22 million Americans will turn 18 before 2020. At the same time, young people are engaging with the political process at a higher rate than they have at any period since Vietnam.
Incidentally, the first time New Hampshire tried to restrict the youth vote was in 1972 — the year after Congress ratified the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age to 18. Then, as now, young people were increasingly drawn into politics, galvanized by a campaign that asked why, if they were old enough to be drafted, were they not old enough to vote.
The 1972 law, which required voters to have lived in the state for at least six months before voting, was ultimately struck down, and the Granite State, once a Republican stronghold, has lurched increasingly leftward ever since. The second time New Hampshire politicians tried to restrict the youth vote was in 2012. Bill O’Brien, then-speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, complained that college students, who skew overwhelmingly liberal, lack “life experience… they just vote their feelings.” As in 1972, the 2012 law was declared unconstitutional.
Buttigieg is concerned about the broader implications of the new law in New Hampshire and others like it. “This goes beyond just young people: this is about whether democracy will be expanded or restricted in our lifetimes. Every American generation, I think, in history has seen our democracy become more not less democratic — going all the way back to expanding the franchise beyond property owners, to suffrage and voting rights and the direct election of senators — each turn in history has been one in which America has made it easier not harder for U.S. citizens, more of us, to vote. And the question, I think, is will my generation live to be the first where America is less democratic at the end of our lives than it was at the beginning.”