Opinion: Voting rights must be part of Biden’s education agenda

Two voting rights advocates urge President Joe Biden to increase the U.S. Department of Education’s commitment to helping students to register to vote and obtain information about, and participate in, the electoral process.

Michael Dannenberg is a principal with Creative Policy Partners, former Obama administration senior adviser in the U.S. Department of Education and senior education counsel to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. Bryce McKibben is the senior director of policy and advocacy at The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University, and a former senior adviser to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Views expressed herein are their own.

By Michael Dannenberg and Bryce McKibben

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden traveled to Selma, Alabama, to mark the anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march that proved a turning point in the civil rights movement and led to swift passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The president’s visit was intended to dramatize the need for Congress to advance legislation — named after the late Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., who was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge nearly 60 years ago — to restore voting rights stripped by the John Roberts-led U.S. Supreme Court.

The president’s visit came two years after he issued an executive order directing his own agencies to “consider ways to expand citizens’ opportunities to register to vote and to obtain information about, and participate in, the electoral process.” With voting rights legislation stalled in a divided Congress, it is more important than ever that the president use his executive authority to protect the right to vote.

A progress report released last week by more than 50 education, civil rights, and public interest organizations grades the work of nine federal agencies to fulfill the president’s executive order. Many did well. But the agency charged with supporting and nurturing civic engagement among young people was among the worst performing. The U.S. Department of Education was ranked among the lowest and graded as “falling behind.” Almost 60 years after Selma, we’re still fighting a retrograde battle for voting rights.

The report does praise the Education Department for releasing an “impactful” letter in 2021 reminding colleges of their responsibility under the Higher Education Act to make a “good faith effort” to share voter registration forms with students and noting that work-study funds can be used for nonpartisan on-campus voter registration. However, “ED is missing a huge opportunity,” the authors noted, to follow through on the president’s directive.

The groups are right.

Some 73% of eligible young people did not vote in the most recent midterm election, significantly worse than older voters. That’s in part because young, new voters and mobile students often lack information about voting processes and deadlines that vary widely by jurisdiction. And they all too frequently encounter structural barriers to voting.

In states like Texas, state law prohibits students from using their campus ID cards to register to vote or cast a ballot, and poll locations are often inexcusably far from campus. Just recently, Texas legislation was introduced to ban polling sites at all colleges.

No doubt some politicians view youth voting as a partisan matter, but they’re mistaken. Almost 2-in-5 young voters identify as Independents or “something else” — significantly higher than voters in other age groups. In some areas, the youth vote is decisively for Republican candidates; in 2022, for example, 64% of rural youths supported Republican House candidates.

To counter state and other barriers, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona should ensure steps are taken by his agency, some referenced in the groups’ report, to meet the White House’s voter access promotion mandate.

The Biden administration should begin by issuing regulations already authorized by the law to require colleges to provide students with the opportunity to register to vote or update their registration during times when students already have to interact with their college, such as obtaining a student ID card, signing up for on-campus housing, or registering for courses.

Rather than a passive paper or electronic message from colleges encouraging voter registration, colleges that receive hundreds of billions in public support should be required to make the option to register to vote part of an active experience in which all eligible students participate. If the Department of Motor Vehicles can do it in every state, so can colleges.

The Biden administration should also clarify students can access more than $1.2 billion in Federal Work-Study funds to help with nonpartisan voter registration and turnout when they are employed with a government entity or nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. Students can now do that same work for their own college, and it doesn’t make sense to restrict them from working in more official capacities and off campus to help the larger community.

The Higher Education Act allows students to use their Federal Work-Study funds to work with off-campus entities, including government offices and nonprofit groups. The Department of Justice has ruled there is nothing impermissibly political about nonpartisan voter registration work. In fact, the Office of Personnel Management allows federal employees to receive paid time off to serve as nonpartisan poll workers. Given that Education Department employees can engage in nonpartisan voter registration drives and poll place work, students with financial need should be able to use their work-study awards to engage in the same nonpartisan activity while working off campus.

Finally, the Education Department should help students and their families register to vote when they are applying for federal Pell grants via the FAFSA or managing their student loans. The agency needs to design a system that is seamless in allowing everyone to register to vote and update their registration as easily as possible — especially students who are often on the move.

Biden’s visit to Selma shows his continued commitment to voting rights. In particular, the U.S. Department of Education should follow his lead and do so well before another election passes. We owe it to all those who marched.