To ensure a healthy democracy, we need an informed and motivated electorate. To help achieve that, our higher education systems can and should play a major role in supporting a culture of civic engagement.
And yet there are many efforts currently underway to diminish student voter turnout and participation in our democracy. These tactics include regulations on actions directly connected to voting and attempts to limit freedom of speech and academic life on public campuses, both of which can disengage students from the political process.
At a time when the data show an unprecedented surge in student voting after decades of decline, we need to sustain this momentum across the country, and pay close attention to a few key states where voter suppression tactics are being used to suppress the student vote.
Florida: Hot spot of student voter suppression efforts
Florida is ranked the number 1 state for higher education, an accolade due in large part to several high-ranking public universities in Florida, low tuition rates, and a robust in-state scholarship program that offers many Floridians a full ride to its colleges and universities.
Yet among these positive benefits for students resides a threat to student civic engagement. Many recently passed laws are now in effect that aim to limit access to voting and the knowledge needed to be an informed voter. They are bound to have big ramifications for student voting.
Most students entering college have just turned 18, or will within their first year, and are therefore eligible to become first-time voters. But registering to vote can be a confusing process and is not typically at the top of a new student’s to-do list.
The scientific literature shows that initiatives such as voter registration drives or canvassing by third-party organizations can increase student voter registration and turnout by several percentage points. However, a new law in Florida, SB7050, aims to make the work of such organizations more difficult by shrinking the window of time allowed for registration application submission, increasing late fee fines, and requiring re-registration for each election cycle.
This would affect organizations such as Engage Miami, March for Our Lives, and League of Women Voters, who have been able to register thousands of student voters in recent years. SB7050 will also require in-person voting for first-time voters without a state driver’s license, voter ID card, or Social Security card. This could very well apply to student voters who either recently turned 18 or who are new to the state due to relocating for college.
Another Florida law, SB7066, aims to impose many voting restrictions, including one that disproportionately targets campus voting sites. In 2018, following a federal lawsuit filed by League of Women Voters of Florida, early voting polling sites were established on 11 Florida college campuses. Now these on-campus polling sites could be thwarted by a parking regulation for polls. SB7066 states that all polling sites must have “sufficient non-permitted parking.” This is likely to limit the availability of early voting sites on college campuses that lack non-permitted parking, even though most student voters would arrive on foot, by public transportation, or by cars with on-campus parking permits.
Florida’s attacks on academic freedom have implications for student voting
When their vote is stifled, a student’s ability to build their political identity and voice is limited. This effect will be compounded by other recent legislation that targets academic freedom on public college campuses. For example, Florida’s SB266 mandates that state or federal funding at colleges and universities cannot be spent on programs that “advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion or promote or engage in political or social activism.” It also limits these ideas from being discussed and acted upon by student organizations, and from being taught by educators in the classrooms of all general education courses.
While SB266 does not directly limit a student’s ability to vote, it is likely to influence student voter turnout indirectly. Behavioral science shows that students are hesitant to vote due to feeling insecure about their level of political knowledge and not yet identifying as voters, and are often not aware of how voting can connect to their everyday lives and to issues they care about.
If SB266 and other laws like it limit and censor lessons on political and social issues of the past and present, students are more likely to feel uninformed politically and unprepared to vote. If student organizations can no longer receive funding for any political or social activism that might occur on campus, the perception of student political engagement is likely to decline and along with it growth toward a politically engaged student voter identity. If classroom discussions are muted that connect the dots between race, gender, and class with public policy, economics, art, science, and the environment, students will be even further from understanding the implications of their vote on the world around them.
If we want to engage more students in the political process, we need to discuss political issues more in the classroom, not less, to build their confidence and identities as informed voters.
Indeed, in a survey of 21 programs designed to enhance college students’ political engagement through various pedagogical tools, there were several key factors important to democratic participation. These included an increase in students’ identities as politically engaged, foundational political knowledge, and an increased expectation to participate in electoral activities. These gains were met without any change to student political ideology or party identification.
Other work has sought to identify what type of pedagogical tools and lesson types are most effective at increasing student political engagement. Notably, open classroom discussions on societal issues and current events were found to lead to more student engagement with political issues and the intention to vote.
It’s not just Florida
Laws designed to restrict student access to voting and to muzzle academic freedom at public colleges are also moving forward in other states. For example, a proposed bill in Texas (HB 2390) aims to limit the creation of any new polling sites on any college or university campus.
Many other state legislatures have either proposed or passed similar legislation to Florida’s SB266 that targets diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at public colleges and universities. Few of these bills go as far as limiting what educators can say in the classroom, but many attempt to reduce or end the funding of DEI offices and programs on college campuses. This can limit the resources and support systems needed by educators who want to have challenging and thoughtful discussions in the classroom—discussions that have the ability to help students grapple with their identities, how their communities are influenced by public policies, and how they can make their voices heard through electoral action and civic engagement.
An uprising of student and youth activism
Despite such attempts to thwart student political engagement, a wave of student activism has been sparked by the types of injustices that SB266 and other similar bills aim to keep educators and students silent about on campus.
Previous events in Florida—such as the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, and laws limiting education and support for the LGBTQ+ community—have catalyzed movements such as March for Our Lives and Say Gay Anyway. With several voter restriction laws and SB266 going into effect in Florida this year, supporting and participating in these forms of student and youth activism is paramount to grow, not diminish, student political knowledge, identity, and engagement. And with the imminent spread of similar laws and restrictions to other states, student and youth activism must continue to mobilize across borders.
In every state and on every campus, access to voting and the freedom to learn and discuss how political and social issues influence our everyday lives are integral to preserving a healthy, informed, and motivated democracy.
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