The 26th Amendment guarantees voting rights to Americans over the age of 18. The last decade has seen a profusion of attempts to keep students from exercising that right, such as new, strict voter identification laws, gerrymandering of campus precincts and efforts to close down campus polling places. Why is this happening? Who doesn’t want students to vote—and why?
Yael Bromberg, chief counsel for voting rights for The Andrew Goodman Foundation, visited Durham Feb. 12-13 to explore these questions with students at N.C. Central and Duke universities. Hart Leadership Program and Polis: Center for Politics at the Duke Sanford School, the Duke Human Rights Center at FHI, and DemocracyNC sponsored the events.
Bromberg is a constitutional rights attorney with 15 years of experience in community organizing, advocacy and campaigns. Bromberg’s article “Youth Voting Rights & The Unfulfilled Promise of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment,” was recently published in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law.
This interview was conducted over email by Miranda Gershoni, a Duke undergraduate working for the Duke Human Rights Center. It has been edited from the original version.
Q: HOW DID YOU GET INTO COMMUNITY ORGANIZING? HOW DID THAT LEAD YOU TO BECOME A CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS ATTORNEY?
A: My parents immigrated to the United States when I was a baby, and my grandparents and ancestors suffered from anti-Semitic fascism abroad. Community organizing gave me an outlet to work in collaboration to build a better world. This naturally led to my practice and scholarship in constitutional law. I work alongside and represent people who have somehow been hurt by anti-democratic practices. When we challenge those practices, we are better for it individually and as a nation.
Q: WHEN DID YOU FIRST RECOGNIZE THE PATTERN OF SUPPRESSING YOUNG PEOPLE’S VOTES?
A: As a college organizer, I witnessed a myriad of ways in which young people were excluded from the democratic process because of a fear that they’d shake things up. As I began to study and litigate these issues more closely during and after law school, a pattern emerged. Why are standard student identification cards – the very type of photo IDs that our newest and youngest voters are most likely to present to vote – not permissible forms of voter identification? Why are polling places not on-campus, be it during the early voting period or on Election Day? Why are successful high school pre-registration programs being cut, or not widely implemented and incorporated into a robust civics curriculum? Why do we not readily pass laws such as Election Day Registration, Online Voter Registration, or Automatic Voter Registration, which are proven voter-friendly measures that do not cause an administrative burden on the state to implement? Some states get it right, while others have a ways to go.
Q: DO YOU SEE IT AS A COHESIVE EFFORT OR THE COMPILATION OF DISPARATE EFFORTS?
A: There are clear examples of intentional age-based discrimination… However, we are unaccustomed to thinking about youth voter suppression within a traditional voting rights framework. As a result, efforts that may perhaps seem disparate start to reveal a pattern nationally.
Q: WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE GREATEST THREAT TO YOUTH CIVIC ENGAGEMENT?
A: We are witnessing clear attacks on our democracy such as voter suppression and the flood of money in politics. However, lack of voter engagement is a major threat to the system. Our elections are largely decided by those who opt out of voting – either because they don’t believe that their vote matters, or because they are simply not paying attention. We need to overwhelm the system. Register your friends, get to the polls and get active in politics. If we’re not at the table making the decisions, someone else will be making the decisions for us. Who do you trust to act in your best interest on critical issues like climate, criminal justice, gun control and student debt? The only way to make our democracy more reflective of the American public is to get engaged. That starts with voting and developing a curiosity in the process.
Q: HOW CAN AMERICANS ADDRESS THESE ISSUES, BOTH IN A LONG TERM SUSTAINED EFFORT AND IN OUR DAILY LIVES?
A: We need to find common ground and common cause – across generations, and even across partisan divides where possible. The fight for our democracy won’t be won on social media – it will be won in person. We need to show up for each other and work together. There are myriad of best practices for universities to increase student voter and civics engagement.
Q: ARE VOTER SUPPRESSION EFFORTS ALWAYS OVERT? CAN SUPPRESSION HAPPEN AT THE SUBCONSCIOUS LEVEL?
A: On the subconscious level, I hear stories that people believe that their vote doesn’t matter. But the numbers prove that voters – and young voters in particular – can determine the outcome of elections. Younger generations now make up a larger portion of the electorate than older generations – but they turn out to vote at a much smaller rate. If they voted at equal rates, it would lead to an increase of 24 million new voters. For perspective, the average electoral margin in the last five presidential elections since 2000 was only 4.3 million votes. When you start to apply that analysis on the local or state level, it becomes clear that young voters have a muscle that has yet to be flexed.
Q: WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE POTENTIAL OF THE YOUTH VOTE? WHAT ARE WE PROTECTING?
A: Fifty years ago, the nation came together across partisan lines to ratify the 26th Amendment. It is the quickest amendment to be ratified in U.S. history, largely due to unanimity on the issue of youth enfranchisement. The reason was obvious: the country recognized that young people serve a critical role in protecting the moral compass of our nation. Republican President Richard Nixon participated in the amendment’s certification ceremony, motivated by the idealism, courage, stamina and “high moral purpose” that young people infuse into the democratic process. Young people have played this role since the founding of the nation, and they still do today.