Young Kansans could prove to be a powerful voting bloc on Election Day

Baker University student Will Hanson wears a sock that says "Read, think, vote." This year will be his first time voting in a presidential election. Photo credit Zach Bauman/The Beacon.

By Sidney Steele

For Will Hanson, a junior at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, it’s surprising how many people his age don’t understand the importance of voting.

This year, Hanson, 21, has been working with the college’s new Young Democrats club to register other students to vote. Nov. 3 will be his first time voting in a presidential election.

“I think that more young people are going to vote in this election than ever before,” he said. “Well, I hope that is the case.”

Hanson is just one of thousands of young voters who have registered to vote for the first time this year. Kansas’ electoral landscape looks a lot different than it did four years ago, especially for the state’s youngest eligible voters, according to a Beacon analysis of the most recent voter registration data from the Kansas Secretary of State’s office.

Voter registration among 18- to 24-year-olds is up in many states across the country, according to a report from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. This trend runs true in Kansas, where as of the end of September, voter registration among Kansans ages 18-24 was up 28% from November 2016.

While this is the first election Hanson has been engaged with, he said he has always understood the importance of voting.

“I get infuriated when my friends say they aren’t political or aren’t going to vote,” Hanson said. “You have to vote because change needs to be made. And if you’re not, you’re a part of that problem.”

Legacy of the SAFE Act

One of the main reasons for this increase in youth registration in Kansas is the overturning of a major voter registration law in 2018.

The Secure and Fair Elections Act was passed in 2011 to “secure the integrity of the voting process,” but the U.S. District Court ultimately ruled that in practice, the law did more to disenfranchise voters.

The law, written and championed by then Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and then passed by the state legislature, required new registrants to provide “documentary proof of U.S. citizenship” when registering to vote. This meant potential voters had to provide a certified copy of their birth certificate or a U.S. passport to their county clerk’s office within 90 days of filing for registration, or else their voter registration would be thrown out.

Mark P. Johnson, a professor of law at the University of Kansas and partner at Dentons law firm, said everyone who was already registered to vote before the law went into effect in January 2013 was grandfathered into the system, so they did not have to provide documentary proof of citizenship to maintain their registration. The SAFE Act only impacted new registrants, having a disproportionate effect on people who turned 18 or moved to Kansas from another state while the law was in effect.

‘Our voices need to be heard’ — Will Hanson, Student at Baker University

Johnson, who worked with the ACLU of Kansas to overturn the SAFE Act, said most of the people who fell into the affected category were young or at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder.

“For most of us, providing documentary proof of citizenship is not a difficult task, because we have a copy of our birth certificate or we have a passport. But there are a lot of people who don’t,” he said.

Between January 2013 and September 2015, more than 36,000 people, or over 16%, who tried to register to vote in Kansas were placed on the state’s suspended voter list — the majority of which were young, unaffiliated voters, according to a 2015 analysis by the Wichita Eagle. 

“These are all people who were otherwise eligible to vote,” Johnson said. “They were over 18, they were American citizens, they met every other requirement and filled out their registration, but could not produce this piece of paper.”

Because the SAFE Act disproportionately affected younger and lower-income people, Johnson said it skewed the electorate to be made up of people who are older, wealthier and consequently more Republican.

In 2018, the legality of the SAFE Act was reviewed by the U.S. Court for the District of Kansas. Kobach, a proponent of voter ID laws, argued that voter fraud by noncitizens was a rampant problem. But in her ruling, Chief District Judge Julie A. Robinson wrote that while this was a legitimate concern, at most 67 noncitizens had registered or attempted to register in Kansas over the last 19 years, and the concern was not “strong enough to outweigh the tangible and quantifiable burden on eligible voter registration applicants in Kansas who were not registered to vote before January 1, 2013.”

The court ruled that the law violated the National Voter Registration Act and the 14th Amendment, and the SAFE Act was overturned.

Johnson said the 2020 election will certainly look different than past years as a result.

“Thousands more people have been allowed to register to vote because this law has not been enforced,” he said.

Engaging college campuses

For Hanson, becoming politically involved on campus started after he volunteered at a Joe Biden rally in March.

“I wasn’t going to go, but they were asking for volunteers,” he said. “So I went and really enjoyed it, then my friend came to me with the Young Democrats club and said we would be focusing on getting people to vote, so I joined.”

For Will Hanson, 21, his engagement in politics began after volunteering at a Joe Biden rally in March. Photo credit Zach Bauman/The Beacon.

The Beacon also reached out to college Republican groups, but did not hear back by the time of publication.

Davis Hammet, founder of the nonprofit Loud Light, works on college campuses to help young Kansans engage with the political process. Hammet founded Loud Light at the end of 2015 with the goal of getting more young people registered to vote, more young people voting and more young people engaged and invested in their communities.

Under the SAFE Act, Hammet said he and his volunteers would often have to act as “case workers” for the students they were helping register to vote.

“I would have spreadsheets tracking people and following up,” Hammet said. “They would say, ‘I don’t know how to get a birth certificate,’ and I would have to help them. And then they would have to pay for a certified copy of their birth certificate, and I have to follow up six weeks later, once they finally got that document, to send that copy to the county clerk. It was such a barrier.”

Now, Loud Light is active on every major college campus and several community colleges in Kansas, providing voting information and assistance while registering to vote.

Often, Hammet said, young voters are overlooked by elected officials and political candidates.

“When young people don’t vote, we don’t have a real democratic republic,” Hammet said.

“On both the conservative and the liberal side of the spectrum, young people have more bold views and are willing to take more risk on policies. And that’s an important thing because it counterbalances with older voters who tend to stick to the status quo.”

An added challenge: COVID-19

The ongoing pandemic has created an extra challenge for groups working to engage college students.

“Democracy is a social experience, and a lot of that has been taken away and changed over this year,” Hammet said.

Normally, Loud Light would hold big events to register people to vote, but a lot of that work has shifted online to social media and text messaging.

Hanson said COVID-19 has made it challenging to achieve the reach they normally would have with a new club on campus, but he has found ways to overcome that barrier.

“We came up with the idea with the campus newspaper to make a voter registration video and have worked with other bigger clubs to talk to people,” he said.

But in other ways, the COVID-19 pandemic might be driving young people to be more engaged with this election. Abby Kiesa, director of impact at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, said the pandemic has encouraged many young people to step up to be poll workers, a position most often filled by older retirees who may not feel safe holding that job this year.

“By engaging young people, we are going to have more people thinking about issues in our community, and we have young people who are more likely to be engaged later in life, because civic engagement is clearly learned, but it’s also habitual,” Kiesa said.

Hanson said that during his conversations with other students on campus, the Black Lives Matter movement is driving more of them to want to vote.

“Our voices need to be heard,” he said.

Sidney Steele is a freelance reporter for The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter @Sidney_Steele

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