03/09/2015 03:19 pm ET Updated May 09, 2015

Legislation Should Help Bring Young People Into Our Democracy, Not Block Them

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The wave of voter suppression bills passed in the wake of the 2008 and 2010 general elections is now being answered with a wave of voting expansion bills. From online voter registration to preregistration for 16 and 17-year-olds to expanded options for early and absentee voting, state legislatures have been given a long menu of options for how to make American democracy work better in the 21st century, and to increase participation. Citing the historically low turnout levels for youth voting across the country in November 2014, some state legislators are taking steps to improve student voters' registration and voting options and to encourage them to exercise our democracy's most basic right.

The New Mexico Legislature is considering HB 252, a bill to designate colleges and universities as voter registration agencies under the National Voter Registration Act. There are pending bills in Tennessee and Texas to add to the list of accepted voter IDs a student ID card issued by an accredited postsecondary institution. (South Carolina is the only other strict voter ID state that excludes student ID cards. Mississippi, Alabama, Kansas, Georgia, Indiana and Virginia all accept student ID cards as voter ID.) Additionally, there are bills in a number of states, including Michigan and New Mexico, which will allow 16 and/or 17-year-olds to preregister and be automatically added to the rolls once they turn 18.

These bills face uphill battles, but the fact that these ideas are divisive should shock us as a nation. College undergraduates are the newest members of our democracy, and studies consistently show that they are more likely to vote as adults if they get into the habit early on. Suppressing the student vote is contrary to the democratic principles that we aspire to here at home, and that we seek to promote abroad.

Unfortunately, not everyone has received that message. Arizona legislators denied even a hearing for SB 1350, which would have added student ID cards and federal Veteran Health Identification Cards to the voter ID list, and SB 1360, which would have mandated on-campus voting centers at all public colleges and universities in proportion to their enrolled student population. The North Dakota House has recently passed HB 1333 to eliminate student certificates from the list of accepted voter IDs in the state. The reasons for suddenly removing the student certificate option are mysterious, particularly in a state that does not even have a voter registration system. This past year saw Wisconsin implement the nation's only across-the-board documentary proof of residence requirement for voter registration. This law has made voter registration drives on campus virtually impossible.

State legislatures should tread very carefully in handling voting legislation that restricts the vote. The systematic exclusion of students from the political process exposes states to the risk of legal liability under the U.S. Constitution. In Tennessee, the Fair Elections Legal Network and the Nashville law firm Barrett Johnston Martin & Garrison, LLC have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state's refusal to accept student ID cards as voter ID as violations of the 14th and 26th Amendments.

Tennessee inexplicably allows faculty and staff at public higher education institutions to use their campus IDs to vote, but not students. In North Carolina, a case brought on behalf of college students by the law firm Perkins Coie is challenging, under the 14th and 26th Amendments, the state's Voter Information Verification Act's elimination of preregistration, elimination of Election Day registration, reduction of early voting days, elimination of partial counting for out-of-precinct provisional ballots and the change to the voter ID requirement that eliminates student ID cards as acceptable ID. That case goes to trial this summer.

Between 1942 and 1970, 150 constitutional amendments to lower the voting age were introduced in Congress. The Vietnam War, its young but politically voiceless casualties, and mass youth demonstrations at home finally generated the necessary pressure to make 150 times a charm. Congress finally passed the 26th Amendment in March of 1971, and the necessary number of states ratified it within three months, guaranteeing the right of 18-year-olds to vote in all elections. Significantly, approximately half of the 18 to 20-year-olds enfranchised by the amendment were college students.

In slow motion, in the daily news cycle, the course of American democracy can seem quite uncertain, but if you fast forward, it is in fact only moving in one direction -- toward greater access, inclusivity and efficiency. Fifty years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act and 45 years after the extension of the vote to 18-year-olds, voter suppression efforts look like a perversion of efforts to expand the franchise. Our elected leaders cannot stand against this tide of history. They need to pass legislation to make voting more accessible for students.