Don’t Skip the Vote in College

In the early 1900s, many wildlife populations across the country were decreasing, often as a result from human activities. 

An American conservation leader lamented at the time, “wildlife doesn’t vote and neither do conservationists.” From that era, civic participation became a priority for conservationists to unite Americans from all walks of life and interests in order to make sure their voices are heard on issues related to wildlife and natural areas.

More than 85 years later, the National Wildlife Federation still carries out that vision to encourage civic participation – including that everyone vote.

Nearly two months into the college semester, college students have likely been swept up in the whirlwind of student life. A new semester brings countless opportunities to foster friendships, spread out in a different dorm room, discover hidden passions, or learn something new in the classroom. However, lurking beneath all these exciting avenues of college life are some sinister disadvantages, such as being excluded from our electorate.

As a fresh-faced Freshman in fall 2017, I was excited to dive into all college had to offer. I was looking forward to carving pumpkins, and planning the perfect Halloween costume, and for the first time in my life, I could vote. I had just missed the age cut-off to participate in the 2017 presidential elections and I had felt incredibly frustrated that I had no voice in this monumental decision that would impact every aspect of my life for the next four years to come. Now having finally turned 18 and feeling empowered by all my new civic rights and responsibilities, I was pumped for the November election! I knew next to nothing about the actual process of voting, but I figured if millions of adults could get to the polls and vote each year, how hard could it possibly be?

I quickly discovered that as a college student, the answer to this question was very hard indeed. In the weeks leading up to the election, I struggled to navigate Virginia’s convoluted voter registration and ballot distribution processes. When attempting to register to vote with my campus’ political clubs, a fellow student explained to me that our college campus had been split into three, seemingly arbitrary, electoral districts with three separate polling places. Although we all used the same school mailing address, the particular dorm or apartment building we actually occupied changed our polling place.

After puzzling through which polling place I was assigned, I then discovered that it was not within walking distance despite our University having a walking-only campus that did not permit students to bring cars. Come election day, I finally faced a poll worker ready to receive my ballot. I was registered, I had been dropped off by a kind volunteer providing rides to the polls, and I had brought a form of ID. And then my student ID was rejected because it did not have a printed expiration date. Thankfully, I also had my driver’s license and was still permitted to cast my vote. 

I wish all these hurdles had been exclusive to my first year of voting, but I continued to face a myriad of voting barriers throughout my college career. What I encountered offers only a glimpse into the significant obstacles and impediments many college students face when they attempt to exercise their democratic right to vote. As student voting has surged in recent years, so have efforts to suppress it. Such efforts are more widely known as voter suppression.

What is Voter Suppression?

Over the past two decades, states across the nation have erected new barriers to the ballot box – imposing strict voter ID laws, adding additional steps to absentee ballots, restricting polling places, and purging voter rolls. These hurdles impact all Americans, but they place special burdens on economically disadvantaged communities, racial and ethnic minorities, and young voters.

For young voters attending college or university outside of their home state, they are given a choice between voting in person or voting by absentee ballot. However, absentee ballot requirements and deadlines vary by state, making it a difficult process, especially for first-time voters. This process is further complicated by the backlogged and inconsistent postal service students often receive while residing on campus. Oftentimes, it can be far simpler and more beneficial for students to vote in-person on Election day. 

Although all states require individuals to be residents before voting on Election day, different states have different requirements for identification and verification. As of 2022, nine states have “strict voter ID laws” meaning they only accept select photo IDs and will reject a ballot if the voter cannot present one of the accepted forms of ID. Unfortunately for college students, not everyone has a driver’s license or passport, and out-of-state students will find their IDs are not accepted in most states. The simplest solution to this issue would be to allow students to use their student IDs to vote.

In spite of this, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and North Carolina explicitly bar the use of student IDs from educational institutions. Furthermore, some states like New Hampshire have additional requirements voters must fulfill before they are permitted to vote with a student ID. New Hampshire requires all voters to declare state residency and obtain a NH driver’s license and registration prior to voting or they face penalties. But for most out-of-state students, changing their license and registration is both financially difficult and impractical when they only reside in that state for roughly eight months of the year.

In states that do permit the use of student IDs, there are oftentimes other barriers blocking the ballot box. For example, Florida requires college campuses to have “sufficient non-permitted parking” to provide satellite polling locations on campus for students. Universities that are unable to meet this requirement, like my alma mater, often end up being districted to distant polling places that are not easily accessible to students. With all these disparate rules and regulations, it can be incredibly difficult for students to have both the knowledge and means necessary to get to the polls, restricting civic engagement and reducing voter turnout amongst students.

Why Does Student Voting Matter?

With all these obstacles to voting, it can be easy to throw in the towel and just say “I’ll try again next year” or “I’ll start voting after graduation.” The problem with that mindset is that next year is too late. Every day our legislators make critical decisions that directly impact our health and well-being, as well as the success of conservation and climate action.

This election there are 435 seats open in the U.S. House of Representatives, 35 in the U.S. Senate and dozens of important seats in states across this country. That’s nearly 500 elected officials that will vote on whether we have clean water to drink or fresh air to breathe. Whether we have access to healthcare or public transportation. Whether we have the freedom to make choices about our own bodies. When we choose to skip the vote, we choose to sacrifice our voice on these matters. We’re forgoing our constitutional right to have a say in our environment, our economy, our education, our health, and our bodies.

Luckily, despite these barriers, millions of young people like myself were able to make our way to the ballot box and have our voices heard in the last election. According to one study, about 50% of eligible youth voters aged 18-29 voted in 2020 which is an 8% increase from 2016! There are roughly twenty-four million of us under the age of 25 who are currently eligible to vote, and many of us are high school, college, or university students. If every one of us showed up and exercised our right to vote, legislators would listen. Only we can represent ourselves. 

For resources on making your voting plan, knowing your rights and the voting laws in your state, and getting ready to vote check out

Choose your future, choose to vote this election.