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Vote Policies Impeding Students, Groups Say

By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2004; Page B02

Luther Lowe had lived in Williamsburg, Va., for more than two years when he decided to run for City Council last spring, galvanized by his friends' complaints about the local rental-home occupancy laws.

But Lowe, a junior at the College of William and Mary, was blocked from the ballot by city officials who ruled that his actual residence was still his parents' home in Arkansas.

Meanwhile, in College Park, some students at the University of Maryland who seek to vote in local elections complain that they have to travel to a polling place nearly two miles from their dormitory halls.

Both situations were among those highlighted yesterday by voting-rights activists who say that officials nationwide have unfairly discouraged or prevented college students from taking part in the electoral process.

"They're challenged when they get to the polls; they're told that their financial aid will be revoked or find that polling places are miles away," said Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, one of several groups that participated in a news conference in the District. "This is an affront to our principles of democracy."

An advocacy organization, the League of Conservation Voters rates elected officials on their environmental voting records. Other groups at the news conference included Rock the Vote, which was formed in 1990 to encourage young adults to vote.

Their argument reflects a new approach in the push to encourage youthful political participation. Despite the well-publicized efforts by Rock the Vote and other groups, voter turnout among eligible 18-to-24 year olds hit only 32.3 percent in the 2000 presidential election, the lowest point in a decades-long decline, according to U.S. Census data.

Now, some of those groups are identifying the registration policies and voting systems in college towns as part of the problem.

Callahan and others said the resistance to student voters appears to have less to do with party politics than local politics -- officials who don't want short-term and often non-tax-paying residents to hold sway over local matters. But they acknowledged that such trends could affect presidential elections as well, especially in small states with large college towns.

States have varying standards for what qualifies a person to declare a certain place a permanent home for voting purposes. Yet voting-rights advocates allege that many jurisdictions apply different standards to students.

A student at Hamilton College was told he could not register to vote in Utica, N.Y., because election officials would not count a dorm address as a permanent residence. In Waller County, Tex., the district attorney ruled that students at Prairie View A&M University could not vote in county elections, a decision that has led to a string of lawsuits.

Some local officials argue that they are only applying the same standards to students that they would to any other aspiring voter with a short-term address.

"We have to determine if they are domiciled here," said David R. Andrews, general voter registrar in Williamsburg, who said his office considers such things as which address a person puts on his driver's license or income tax filings. He said that few students apply, and few have been denied.

A judge eventually ruled that Lowe should be allowed to register in Williamsburg because of his six-year contract with the state's National Guard. Another student seeking a spot on the ballot was denied, however.

In College Park, student activists complain that although there is a polling place on campus for national elections, there is none for local elections. College Park Mayor Stephen A. Brayman did not return a call for comment.

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