Confusing Voter Registration Laws Could Affect Presidential Election

Register at parents' home? At school? Students get conflicting advice.

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Imagine you're a college student and you'll be voting for the first time in November. You hear from some that you're able to register to vote at your university address. You are warned by others that if you do, you could lose a scholarship, or health or car insurance, and you'll have to get a new driver's license, too. You consider voting absentee, only to be told by get-out-the-vote volunteers that your absentee ballot really counts only if the election is close.

Confused yet?

Virginia Tech students certainly were when they were delivered these conflicting messages over the past few weeks. With voter registration drives in full swing on campus, students got word from the local registrar of elections that they could face consequences if they registered to vote in Blacksburg—they could lose residency-based scholarships, or their tax status could change—even though, according to the Supreme Court, students have the right to vote where they go to college.

A schoolwide controversy ensued. The registrar's news releases were called "chilling," and he was accused of subverting democracy. He defended himself, saying he was only trying to combat the lack of information given to students from volunteers registering voters on campus. The State Board of Elections jumped in and revised the guidelines to say that a dorm or college address can be an acceptable residential address for voter registration in Virginia, a pivotal swing state, but the board left these guidelines up to interpretation by local election officials. The student newspaper, the Collegiate Times, and student groups scheduled a campus forum on October 1 to clear up whether students should register to vote at Virginia Tech or at their parents' homes before the October 6 Virginia registration deadline.

The debacle at Virginia Tech highlights a problem that college students have encountered in many states for many election cycles—where it is, exactly, they should register to vote. College students are generally not familiar with the voter registration process, technically have two addresses (school and home), and in some cases are not welcome as voters in their university communities because of historic rifts between the students and their college towns. "One of the reasons in the past that jurisdictions have tried to deny the vote to college students is that they expected that college students might vote differently from the rest of them," says Richard Hasen, the William H. Hannon Distinguished Professor of Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "And the Supreme Court has been pretty clear that that's not a good reason."

But while federal courts have ruled that students have a right to vote from campus, state residency laws make things more complicated. It all comes down to how the state, or often a particular municipality, defines residency. Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, says Virginia has a history of county registrars taking a very restrictive view of the law and defining residency very narrowly. "It has the potential to be a problem in a lot of places where the registrar or the state government starts taking a real restrictive view," Greenbaum says.

Of the 50 states, 11, including Virginia, make it more difficult for college students to vote on campus, according to "Democracy and College Student Voting," a 2006 study by the Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Salisbury University in Maryland. In some places, P.O. boxes and dormitories are not considered proper addresses. In others, ID laws make it difficult for students to vote because their driver's licenses do not reflect where they are living at school. In many instances, students are left voting provisionally or voting absentee, says Matt Segal, president of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment, an organization that looks at voting access barriers for students.

"The big story we're trying to break right now is that all of these young people who intend to show up actually might not be able to, given the laws and restrictions in all these states," says Segal.