College-aged voters shattered midterm turnout records at the polls in 2018, going from 21% turnout in 2014 to 31% in 2018. Although the improvement should be celebrated, this still means that almost seven in 10 Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 did not vote in the last election. We can, and should, do better than this, and universities and colleges across the country have a role to play in encouraging their students, most of whom fall in the target age range, to vote. Kentucky in particular needs to see an increased effort on the part of our universities in getting students to participate in elections.
Kentucky has some of the most restrictive voting in the country, and this has severe impacts on our students. Our state prohibits early voting, restricts absentee voting to people out of their county of registration on election day, does not accept student IDs without signatures at the polls, and has narrow election day voting hours (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.).
All of these policies are unfair to college students. The restrictive measures placed on early and absentee voting give students fewer opportunities to vote before election day, undoubtedly resulting in lower overall participation. By not accepting student IDs with signatures at the polls, Kentucky has ensured that students without a driver’s license or government issued ID are unable to vote. It is worth noting that the University of Kentucky’s student IDs do not meet the signature requirement and cannot be used at the polls. The state’s unusually narrow voting hours give students less time to vote on election day. Since elections are held on Tuesdays, students are almost certainly spending a large chunk of the day in class or working, leaving little time left over to vote. While university officials can do very little about the restrictions on early voting and student IDs, they can make it easier for a student to vote in person on election day by making it a university holiday.
Many Kentucky universities already make elections holidays for presidential elections, UK included, but midterm and gubernatorial elections are not given as university holidays. In creating the imbalance, universities are essentially prioritizing one election over others, even though midterm and gubernatorial races are arguably just as important as presidential races. The state that just began requiring a “citizenship test” to graduate high school should probably be emphasizing civic duty and the importance of every election in our state universities. Making it easier for students to vote in one election over others could make students see one election as more critical than others.
Many UK students, and indeed college students at all state schools, are working a job on top of their classes in order to pay for food, housing, and classes. These students typically cannot afford to miss work and lose money in order to vote. Since the voting hours in Kentucky are so restrictive, there is almost no time between classes and work for these students to wait in line at the polls. Most students cannot afford to miss work, so it makes far more sense for the university to cancel classes on that day in order to promote a civic duty.
Clearly the universities can afford to make election day a holiday; they do it for presidential races. Expanding university holidays to midterm and gubernatorial elections would do little harm to course schedules while encouraging students to engage in one of the core components of our democratic principles. Students need to be able to make their voices heard through voting, and universities across the state, including U.K., need to promote policies that enable them to use that voice.
Aidan O’Brien is a student at the University of Kentucky studying biology and political science.