by Chris Kromm
[The following is part of the Institute's ongoing special coverage of voting rights and elections issues heading into November. Visit the Facing South blog for more in-depth reporting and analysis.]
Virginia has emerged as one of the tightest swing states in the 2008 presidential election. Every vote will count.
The votes of young Virginians will be especially critical. According to the latest state statistics, 42% of Virginia's more than 284,100 new registrants are college-aged, between 17 and 25 years old. An astounding 50,000 new voters in Virginia are 18 years old.
But new reports are showing that the rights of college students to vote in Virginia are still being challenged by election officials using an exceedingly narrow interpretation of state residency laws, potentially disenfranchising tens of thousands of young voters.
How many Virginia voters could be affected? A 2006 report found 34% of Virginians aged 18-24 are enrolled in college. However, the share of young registered voters who are students is likely higher than that, given that voter participation rises with education and income, and because of the large voter registration campaigns targeting college campuses.
If we can safely estimate that at least 50% of Virginia's new college-aged voters are students, that translates into over 59,000 college student voters. Right now, Pollster.com's averages show McCain and Obama separated by merely .2% -- about 9,500 votes. Using these ballpark estimates, that means affecting less than 20% of student registrations alone could swing the election.
Those are just estimates. Whatever the actual numbers are, you get the point -- this is a big issue.
WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?
So what's going on? Local officials are being encouraged to use their own interpretation of Virginia law regarding student registration -- which has opened the door for some to use an exceptionally strict interpretation that could deny many students the vote.
Students at Radford University, a state-funded liberal arts school in southwestern Virginia, recently organized to protest the actions of Radford city voter registrar Tracy Howard, who was automatically denying all registrations from students who listed a campus address as their residence:
The RU Fair Voter Registration Alliance formed Sept. 15 after student Nikki Rampino registered using her dorm address and received a pending denial notice. After Rampino went to Howard's office and complained, her application was approved. She got her voter identification card Monday. But the Radford registrar says he will continue to reject student registrations with campus addresses:
"If they give me only a dorm address," [Howard] said, "they will be sent something called a pending denial. It says that you need to have a street address, permanent address, in order to register to vote." The episode brought back memories of Virginia Tech, where earlier this year students were wrongfully told by a zealous Montgomery County registar that they could lose scholarship money and coverage under their parent's health insurance. Montgomery County later "clarified" their website.
Last week, Sheri Iachetta -- the registrar for Charlottesville, Va. -- testified before the Committee on House Administration that Radford and Virginia Tech weren't the only places where this controversy was coming up in the state:
"I have heard concerns from [other registrars] across the state that students are registering in dormitories," Iachetta said. Despite widespread public outcry, local officials are still interpreting Virginia law in a way that could bar many students from voting. On September 30, the ACLU called on Howard to stop issuing false denials to Radford students, and encouraged them to contact the ACLU if their registration was denied. Radford's dean of students, Trae Cotton, has announced his support of students' right to vote using a campus address.
WHAT'S THE LAW?
In his defense, Howard says that he wants the Virginia law clarified. That would be helpful -- but the reality is that Virginia law may not be as confusing as local officials are claiming.
The State Board of Election's website is fairly clear, stating:
A dorm or college address can be an acceptable residential address and does not disqualify you from voting. But it's not automatic. A student address only works if a student declares it as their formal "residence," a category that includes two factors, according to the Board of Elections.
First, the student's address must be considered their "abode" -- the place where he or she stays (not a problem in this case). Second, the student's address must also be a "domicile." This is the source of the problem.
What's a "domicile?" According to Virginia's election website:
To establish "domicile", a person must live in a particular locality with the intent to remain there for an unlimited time. But how many students know exactly where they're going to be living three, four or more years from now? Virginia officials acknowledge that "intent" may change, stating:
The applicant must determine and declare their residence and may change their intent at any time. [emphasis added] And how does one measure a student's "intent" anyway? Again, the state's website acknowledges that residency "intent" involves "an assortment of factors," and the state ultimately admits that "intent" is unknowable, at least in a legal sense:
A person's domicile is essentially a matter of subjective intent known only to that person. Which, if you think about it, is true of any voter -- student or not. That's why several courts have held that to hold students to a different standard regarding their "intent" of residency would be a violation of the equal protection clause, as the Brennan Center noted in a 2006 brief:
A few courts have held that a state may make an additional inquiry in a good faith attempt to determine residency, so long as it does not require students to meet a different standard from any other person seeking to register to vote. However, if the inquiry is designed to elicit irrelevant information that is unnecessary to assess fairly whether the student considers the college community to be her primary residence (e.g., where the student's car is registered), it creates a per se rule against residence in the college community, which violates the equal protection clause. Or as the registrar from Charlottesville, Sheri Iachetta, said before the U.S. House:
"Determining a voter's intent [to stay in the state] is not our job to decide ... You don't want to create a special class of citizen, especially in a voting rights state ... Students are being categorized and segregated. They are young adults, it is their decision." Liberty University, the private Christian institution whose chancellor is conservative political activist Rev. Jerry Falwell, recently launched a massive voter registration campaign encouraging all 10,500 eligible students -- including those from out of state -- to register locally. It will be interesting to see whether that effort will be subjected to the same scrutiny.
The Virginia ACLU has been closely following these issues and advocating on behalf of students. For more information, visit their website.