Home Is Where Your Vote Is -- Sort Of

By Raw Fisher
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

From Marc Fisher's blog, Raw Fisher

As we all learned in 2000, what really matters in presidential elections is not the nationwide popular vote but the state-by-state vote. Give people a choice of states to vote in, and many would likely try their hand at strategic voting. This year, for example, a vote in Virginia is far more meaningful than one in Maryland or the District.

Most people don't get to choose which state to vote in. But students who attend out-of-state colleges do. Sort of.

It's one of those gray areas of the law, and elections officials in Virginia are learning just how painful grayness can be.

This fall, students at Old Dominion University who registered to vote in their college town received questionnaires from the Norfolk elections board -- probing whether they were claimed as dependents on their parents' income-tax returns, whether they hold out-of-state driver's licenses, and where their cars were registered.

A group of students, backed by the Barack Obama campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union, cried foul, viewing the questionnaire as an attempt to disqualify them from voting in Virginia.

The elections board's aim was to gain the information it needs to follow the law, which distinguishes between abode and domicile. The law requires that people register to vote in the latter location.

Your abode is where you sleep. Your domicile is, well, it's harder -- it's meant to be your home, the place where you intend to set up your life.

Of course, some college students never go back home after they finish school, and some -- we're talking about adolescents here -- can't imagine anything beyond their four years on campus. And some are gaming the system.

Abode and domicile are amorphous concepts. The ACLU's Kent Willis notes that since homeless people are permitted to essentially pick any voting place they wish, the law should be read to be flexible enough for college students to choose between their two home locations.

The state Board of Elections puts the rule this way: To qualify as a voter, you must "Be a resident of Virginia (A person who has come to Virginia for temporary purposes and intends to return to another state is not considered a resident for voting purposes.)"

However you and I might read that, the Norfolk elections board has now backed off and tossed out its questionnaire. The Norfolk board issued a statement saying that "although the revised policy guidelines place the burden of proof of residence with the person asserting it, the policy allows students to claim residence in Virginia unchallenged."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company