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HBCU students in Georgia face an extra obstacle in voting

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Originally published on NBC News

Under Georgia law, public colleges and university students can use their student ID to vote. But those at private schools — including seven out of 10 HBCUs — cannot.

Activists rally to encourage voter turnout across from a polling location in Atlanta on Nov. 8.Seth Herald / AFP via Getty Images

When Lauren Nicks, a senior at Spelman College in Atlanta, cast her vote in last month's midterms, she did so in her home state of New York.

Nicks, a 21-year-old international studies major at the historically Black college, had been told months earlier by fellow students about a law that does not allow students from private colleges and universities in the state to use their school ID as identification to vote — a rule she believed would prevent her from casting a ballot in Georgia.

As a result, she wasn’t able to vote for her preferred candidate, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, in November, or in next week’s runoff election either.

“You can’t use that [Spelman] ID,” she said in a recent interview. “I just thought I wasn’t eligible.”

Her confusion emanated from a 16-year-old provision in Georgia voting law in which only IDs from state schools, not private schools, are considered an acceptable form of voter ID.

It’s a provision that voting rights experts say continues to confuse voters — especially college students or others who already face barriers — and results in many of them voting elsewhere or not at all. Furthermore, they argue it has a disproportionate impact on student voters of color, because seven out of 10 of Georgia’s historically Black colleges and universities are private institutions.

Nicks could have brought in another form of identification to vote; under Georgia law, her passport or her New York state identification card would have sufficed, for example. But she didn’t know that. Nicks said she didn’t want to risk not being able to vote, so she simply remained registered in New York and voted with an absentee ballot.

“Students in general often have a more difficult time accessing the ballot box because of all sorts of things. For example, their addresses often change. Voters of color face barriers to the ballot box as well. So when you take that overlap, you’re making it even harder for a subset of voters for whom it’s already quite difficult to cast a ballot,” Rahul Garabadu, a senior voting rights attorney at the Georgia American Civil Liberties Union, said.

There are about 157,000 registered Georgia voters who don’t have an ID number on file with the secretary of state’s office, according to VoteRiders, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for voters who live in states with strict voter ID laws. The Office of the Georgia Secretary of State confirmed the number. There are at least 10,000 students enrolled at private HBCUs in Georgia.

Voting rights experts acknowledge that number of voters in Georgia affected by the provision ultimately represents a narrow slice of the state’s electorate.

But given how close major races in the state have been over the past two election cycles, they also emphasize that any impact the law has could affect the outcome of any close race.

“Take a look at any recent Georgia election and you’ll see that every vote really matters to the outcome there right now. The margins are exceptionally thin,” said Danielle Lang, the senior director of the voting rights unit at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan voting watchdog group. “So in a race like this, making sure that access is as broad as possible is essential to make sure the results reflect the desire of Georgia voters.”

An older law — but impact remains

The provision in question stems from the state’s 2006 voter ID law. It’s been amended several times, but the law continues to require that, to cast a ballot, a voter must present a Georgia driver’s license; a driver’s license or identification card from another state; a Georgia voter identification card; a passport; a government employee, military identification or tribal identification card; or any identification card issued by any branch, department, agency or entity of the state of Georgia.

That last category includes public universities and colleges — but not private ones.

The provision is not a part of SB 202, the 2021 Georgia election law that introduced a series of new rules and restrictions on voting (including having cut in half the time allowed between a general election and a runoff election, which drastically shortened the period during which many voters must request, receive and cast ballots).

SB 202 also required voters casting mail-in ballots to include their driver’s license identification number or other documentary proof of identity with the application and ballot. Students at private colleges and universities in Georgia who cast a mail-in ballot in 2022 would have had to submit a different form of ID with their application and ballot.

“This [provision] isn’t even part of SB 202, but all of these laws kind of interact with each other and have a cumulative impact, so when you stack them up, they often end up having a noticeable disenfranchising effect in the broader picture,” Garabadu of the Georgia ACLU said.

Garabadu noted that several states, including Alabama and Wisconsin, had either amended existing voter ID laws or issued new guidance in how to interpret them to allow school IDs from private colleges and universities as an acceptable form of ID to vote.

Defenders of the provision, including the Office of the Georgia Secretary of State, which oversees elections in Georgia and is one of several bodies that enforces such voting laws, told NBC News that government-issued identification — including those issued by state universities — remained more sound than any other form of ID and suggested it would not be difficult for students who want to vote in Georgia to simply obtain other acceptable forms of identification.

“Government identification is, by definition, issued by GOVERNMENT agencies. Photo identification for voting is a longstanding legal requirement passed by the Georgia legislature and upheld by the courts, and Georgia offers an ID card at every County Registrar’s office or Department of Driver Services office free of charge,” Mike Hassinger, a spokesperson for the secretary of state, said in a written statement to NBC News.

Hassinger and another spokesperson for the office did not respond directly to questions from NBC News regarding whether the office would in the future consider releasing guidance to private colleges and universities regarding what they could do to heighten their ID standards to bring them in line with the standards upheld by public institutions.

An attempt to educate student voters

To prepare students who may have otherwise unexpectedly encountered the rule at a polling place, groups like VoteRiders put boots on the ground in the months ahead of the general election. The group has remained active in the weeks since, working to make sure that students, particularly at private HBCUs, who are already registered voters know what documents they must bring if they vote in person in Tuesday’s Senate runoff, and to remind them they can ask for a provisional ballot if obstacles arise.

“You have a lot of students who came from cities like Philadelphia, or New York and they never needed a driver’s license or had a state ID in their state,” said Sylvester Johnson, an Atlanta-area organizer with the group. He noted that the only form of photo ID some he'd talked with on various Atlanta campuses currently had was their student ID from the private HBCU they were enrolled in.

“These are the kind of students who are affected,” he said.

Johnson and his team of volunteers have been combing the seven private HBCU campuses across the state in recent weeks reminding students what they must bring when they cast their ballot in person.

One such voter, Aylon Gipson, said he, too, was organizing his friends and classmates.

“I got my driver’s license when I was 16, but there’s so many people I run into that don’t have one. A lot of our students don’t drive, don’t have a passport, it’s a problem,” said Gipson, a 20-year-old junior at Morehouse College in Atlanta who is originally from Montgomery, Ala.

“I’ve seen it firsthand. You hear people saying they want to vote, want to be involved, but they don’t know if they are even allowed to vote," he added. "It’s discourages them from showing up.”

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