A version of this article was published by the Courier Journal on February 6th, 2024. You can read it here. Original graphic by Ava Hurwitz.
Senate Bill 80 (SB 80), an Act Relating to Elections, passed through the Kentucky Senate on Jan. 30 and now awaits a vote in the House. The bill, sponsored by senators Southworth, Boswell, Douglas, Meredith, Tichendor and Wilson, would make two major changes to current Kentucky law. First, it would remove credit or debit cards as a form of secondary identification at polls, and second, perhaps more detrimental to young people in the state, it would ban the use of college/university or technical school IDs as voter identification.
Kentucky isn’t alone in this effort. Many other red states across the country have made similar pushes to restrict the types of identification allowable at polling stations. In Idaho, their new law has ended up challenged in the courts.
Legislators propose bills like SB 80 with the stated hope of preventing voter fraud, however, fraud isn’t the main election related issue our state is facing. The State Board of Elections found that in 2023 Kentucky only had a 38.1% voter turnout rate for the general election. This means that well below half of registered voters actually showed up to the polls. The statistics grow even more alarming when voter turnout is broken down by age. Only 20.9% of registered voters aged 17-24, the primary age group SB 80 would effect, exercised their right to vote last year.
In Kentucky, students need more encouragement to get to the polls, not less. By narrowing the number of valid forms of ID, the bill would restrict voter access among a generation with already low turnout. If our lawmakers want to make changes to the election system, shouldn’t they be focusing on civic engagement and increased representation across the commonwealth? Shouldn’t they be finding ways to increase access to polls and encourage more people, particularly students, to vote, rather than creating more hoops for voters to have to jump through?
The logic behind SB 80 is questionable. Current Kentucky law allows student IDs granted by US institutions of higher education containing the individual's name and photo to be used as voter identification. It is reasonable to believe that students must register in courses and prove their identity in order to obtain their student ID, in the same way they would in order to get a government issued ID. Student IDs would have no more potential to be fraudulent than a standard driver's license. Additionally, in conversation with the Courier Journal, bill sponsor Sen. Southworth admitted that she wasn’t aware of voter fraud via student IDs being an issue. This begs the question: Why are legislators wasting time solving problems that aren’t problems yet? There are many more pressing concerns students actually need legislators to solve, from taking action against climate change to investing in infrastructure following natural disasters, to developing equitable school funding policies.
This issue doesn’t seem to be purely partisan either, as Kentucky’s Republican Secretary of State opposes the bill, fearing that it will be struck down in court and that it would alienate young voters. Making voting more accessible to young people shouldn't be specific to a political party. It is important for all young people to be able to cast a ballot.
As a young person who is both looking forward to soon being old enough to vote and is currently beginning my college search, I will consider how accepting a potential school and its state are to hearing my voice and that of my classmates. Ease of registration and voting will factor into that. Similarly, as we want to encourage Kentucky’s brightest to stay in this state and as we recruit hardworking youth from elsewhere to study and potentially relocate here long term, we need to think about the kinds of messages our legislators are sending to them. I am privileged enough to have a driver’s license I can use as identification when it comes time for me to vote, but I know many students do not have that same resource. These students have no less of a right to vote than I. They are just as invested in our community and in our legislature that makes decisions that impact our state's colleges and universities every year.
We need to remind our elected officials that the fraud they are trying to prevent is not the real issue. The lack of voter turnout is a cry for more policies aimed at encouraging engagement and improving access to elections, not limiting them. There are many more pressing concerns worthy of our legislature’s attention, and if we want to retain and attract engaged and participatory future leaders, we need to send those messages to young people now. Our democracy only functions if we protect fair and free elections, but SB 80 threatens them instead.