Voting with a student ID is allowed in Georgia for students attending public colleges and universities. However, if you attend a private school, that rule doesn’t apply to you. This challenge affects seven out of 10 HBCUs in the state.
For the midterm elections last month, Spelman College senior Lauren Nicks returned to her home state of New York to cast her ballot. Nicks, a major in international studies, is a 21-year-old student at the historically Black college. She told NBC the law prohibiting students from private colleges and universities in the state from using their school ID as identification to vote had been brought to her attention months earlier by fellow students.
She believed if Georgia adopted this law, she would not be able to vote. Thus, Nicks could not cast a ballot for her candidate of choice, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, either in the general election in November or the runoff vote the following week.
“You can’t use that [Spelman] ID. I simply believed I wasn’t qualified,” she said.
Her perplexity stemmed from a 16-year-old Georgia voting law stating only IDs from state schools — not private institutions — are accepted as forms of voter identification.
Voter confusion persists, according to experts on voting rights, especially among college students and other people who already encounter obstacles. This causes many students to cast their ballots elsewhere or abstain entirely. Seven out of 10 of Georgia’s HBCUs are private, so opponents argue it disproportionately affects minority student voters.
Nicks was unaware of this, unfortunately. She did not want to risk being alienated, so she merely kept her New York voter registration and cast 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, specifically told the outlet.
According to Vote Riders, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for voters in states with strict voter ID laws, there are approximately 157,000 registered Georgia voters who do not have an ID number on file with the secretary of state’s office.
The number was validated by the Secretary of State’s Office in Georgia. In Georgia, private HBCUs serve at least 10,000 students. In the end, the number of Georgia voters impacted by this provision is expected to be relatively small, according to experts on voting rights in the state. However, they also stress that any impact the law has could affect the outcome of any close race, citing the closeness of significant races in the state over the past two election cycles.
The disputed clause originated in a state law requiring photo identification for voting that took effect in 2006.
Georgia law still requires voters to show one of the following to cast a ballot: a driver’s license or identification card issued by the state of Georgia; a driver’s license or identification card issued by another state; a Georgia voter identification card; a passport; an employee, military, or tribal identification card issued by the federal or state government; or an identification card issued by any branch, department, agency, or entity of the state of Georgia.
This final group includes public schools and colleges but not private institutions.
SB 202, the Georgia election law that implemented a slew of new rules and restrictions on voting in 2021, does not contain the aforementioned provision.
Mail-in ballot applicants and voters are now required by SB 202 to submit a copy of their driver’s license or other official documentary proof of identity. Students at private Georgia universities who requested and used a mail-in ballot in 2022 would have been required to provide an alternative form of identification.
“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 noted.
According to Garabadu, several states, including Alabama and Wisconsin, have changed their voter ID laws or issued new interpretations of those laws to make student IDs from private universities and colleges valid for voting purposes.
The Office of the Georgia Secretary of State, responsible for monitoring elections and one of several bodies that implement such voting laws, told NBC News that government-issued identification, including that issued by state universities, remained more sound than any other form of ID. Students who want to vote in Georgia are expected to 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. 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 the media outlet.
Hassinger and another spokesperson for the office did not directly respond to NBC News’ questions about whether or not the office was considering issuing advice to private colleges and universities on what they could do to increase their ID specifications to bring them in line with the regulations affirmed by public institutions.
In the months leading up to the midterms, organizations like Vote Riders put in the work to educate students about the rule in case they encounter it at the polls.
In the weeks since, they have been working to ensure that students at private HBCUs who are already registered voters are aware of what documents they need to bring if they vote in person in Tuesday’s Senate runoff and that they are reminded that they can ask for a provisional ballot if they encounter any problems.
“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,” Sylvester Johnson, an Atlanta-area organizer aligned with the group, expressed.
“The student ID from their private HBCU was the only form of photo identification for some people he had spoken with across Atlanta’s campuses,” he said.
In recent weeks, Johnson and his volunteers have been making their rounds at the seven private HBCU campuses across the state, reminding students to bring the proper identification and ballot materials to the polls.
Aylon Gipson is one such voter who spoke up to say that he was also rallying his peers.
“I got my driver’s license when I was 16, but there’s so many people I run into that don’t have one,” 20-year-old Gipson said. A lot of our students don’t drive, don’t have a passport, it’s a problem,” the Morehouse junior added.
“I’ve seen it firsthand,” he concluded. “You hear people saying they want to vote, want to be involved, but they don’t know if they are even allowed to vote; it discourages them from showing up.”