Members of the Nashville Student Organizing Committee at the Tennessee Capitol with a message that voter-ID laws silence students’ voices, March 25, 2014, in Nashville
Courtesy of Nashville Student Organizing Committee

The voter-ID war just opened up a huge new front. This time in Tennessee. A group of nine students from HBCUs Fisk and Tennessee State have filed a federal lawsuit against the Volunteer State’s heavily contested and controversial voter-ID law.

Johnston points to identification cards for state university faculty and staff, which are perfectly legal to use at the polls—and yet student IDs are not accepted: “The law’s denial of the use of student IDs when exactly the same ID is OK for others is unconstitutional.”

The case marks a highly unprecedented turning point in the ongoing conflict over voter ID and other Republican-led voter-suppression laws accused of targeting Democratic-friendly young, minority and low-income voters. With Republicans expanding their electoral gains in state legislatures, voter-ID laws have become a common feature in many key states and, as initial data suggest, disproportionately impacted large populations of color.

Observers are watching the new Tennessee case with heavy interest, since it appears to be the first student-led legal action of its kind. Some view it as Supreme Court-worthy and a savvy political maneuver on the part of black youth activists that could have far-reaching implications beyond Tennessee. The suit may very well advance because the Middle Tennessee federal district court is dominated by judges appointed by Democratic presidents. Chief Judge Kevin Sharp was recently appointed by President Barack Obama.   

“Studies are showing that the voter-ID laws are suppressing youth turnout,” DePaul University political science professor Molly Andolina told The Root. Andolina anticipates the emergence of a growing black youth movement born out of frustration over issues such as police violence and voter ID that could influence the 2016 elections.

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Christina Rivers, another DePaul University political scientist, agreed: “To the extent that #BlackLivesMatter converges with other potentially suppressive factors such as voter-ID laws, along with reductions in early and Sunday voting, it will likely mobilize voters.”

At the moment, said Doug Johnston, a Barrett Johnston lawyer on the case who has also worked aggressively against the state’s voter-ID law since its passage in 2011, the current suit doesn’t seek “to dismantle the whole voter-ID law.” However, it will seek to reverse what his clients view as violations of their constitutional rights under the 14th and 26th amendments. “The basis of this lawsuit is really very simple,” Johnston told The Root. “It’s an attempt to have students treated in the same manner as similarly situated individuals.”

In its complaint (pdf), NSOC argues that Tennessee’s strict voter-ID law, which only allows for a limited number of photo IDs, “intentionally discriminates against out-of-state college and university students, and has the purpose and effect of denying and abridging the right to vote on account of age.”

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At the heart of the case is a dispute over out-of-state student rights; the nine plaintiffs, ages 18 and 19, are originally from states such as California, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio. But they are all legal residents of Nashville, holding official state-issued student IDs. Lawyers argue that the current Tennessee voter-ID laws are too restrictive: Even though out-of-state students can apply for free identification licenses at Driver Service Centers, the process is too burdensome and effectively prevents them from voting.

Lawyers for NSOC might be on to something. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law highlights Tennessee as being among 15 states with the most restrictive voter-ID laws in the nation. And a recent federal Government Accountability Office report found turnout among Tennessee voters ages 18-23 had dropped by more than 4 percentage points in recent election cycles since the law was enacted.

Tennessee House Republican Caucus press secretary Cade Cothren dismissed the notion that student voting rights have been violated and worries that “frankly, student IDs are easier to fake.” He told The Root, “If a student only has a student ID, they are eligible for a free ID from their local DMV.”

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But when asked for empirical evidence or data showing instances of actual student-ID fraud, Cothren came up short: “Beyond anecdotal evidence, there is not. These statutes were passed to prevent fraud from occurring in the first place.”

“For four years, the Tennessee General Assembly has rejected every attempt to add college student IDs to the voter-ID list, systematically shutting young voters out of the political process just as they become eligible to vote,” said Jon Sherman, a staff attorney for the Fair Elections Legal Network. “This case will demonstrate that when politicians tinker with a voter-ID list to pick their preferred voters, they violate the Constitution and the most basic aspirations of our democracy.” 

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.