Second-Class Citizens in Virginia
Voter turnout in this past election set records -- for youth voters, minority voters and voters who hadn't cast a ballot since the advent of the Internet. But thousands of Virginia college students were excluded because of vague election laws and confused officials.
Good news: This is a problem that can be fixed, easily and inexpensively, just by clarifying the language on the books. Unfortunately, a bill that would have done just that died in the General Assembly last month, though it won approval in the Senate before stalling in the House of Delegates.
Last fall, in college towns across Virginia, registrars rejected students' registration forms and tried to persuade them to vote in places where they no longer lived. A few such instances got national attention, such as the memo that falsely warned Virginia Tech students about the financial consequences of registering in Blacksburg.
At James Madison University and the University of Mary Washington, local registrars repeated similar falsehoods. These registrars consistently set aside registration forms listing a university housing address; some contacted students and discouraged them from registering on campus.
Virginia's voting requirements are so vague that town registrars often have no choice but to speculate as to their meaning. Depending on a registrar's understanding of terms such as "resident," registration forms can be treated differently in separate towns.
The situation at Radford University typifies the problem. Here, the registrar considered dorm rooms temporary residences. Students who submitted forms had to prove that they were entitled to vote in Radford. A graduate student who hadn't lived at her parents' address for six years was denied registration on the grounds that her registration form did not adequately show legitimate Radford residency.
Registrars who prevented students from registering probably thought their actions were legitimate, and they were understandably confused about Virginia law. The Radford registrar, in fact, joined the chorus of voices urging the legislature to clarify the law.
To be sure, many students can vote elsewhere. Although Virginia's registration deadline had passed by the time many students learned their registrations had been rejected, some could vote as absentees by using their parents' addresses. This doesn't excuse the violation of their rights at school. Students, like anyone else, should be able go to their precincts to vote. This is more than a matter of convenience.
Put simply, it's wrong to treat students like second-class citizens. Students pay taxes in the towns where they go to school, tolerate the same potholes and obey the same ordinances as other residents. It's critical to our democratic values that students be afforded the same opportunity to elect those who govern them.
The bill that was before the General Assembly wouldn't have created new rights for students but rather explained what their existing rights mean. It would have ensured that George Mason University students are treated the same as students at the University of Mary Washington, and it would have freed registrars from the thankless task of trying to decipher ambiguous laws. Let's hope that next year the General Assembly will get this right.
The writer is a voting rights and elections fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.