State Laws Pose Hurdles for Student Voters
By Christina Wright, Special to Stateline.org
College students who registered to vote in the state where they attend school have faced sometimes daunting regulations that vary from state to state. And they may confront one more hurdle - showing acceptable identification at the polls.
While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that students can register to vote at their college address, a wide range of state laws, some made stricter since the 2004 elections, and some questionable interpretation by local registrars have deterred some young voters from registering.
Seven states, most of them battleground states, have laws that make it more difficult than others for out-of-state students to establish residency where they attend school, register to vote there and verify their identity at the polls, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School. They are Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Virginia.
The center, which studies how voting laws affect students, flagged Indiana and Florida as having the most rigorous residency verification.
In Florida, each voter must present a photo ID with a signature and an address in the voting district. That can pose problems for students whose driver's licenses often carry their home address and whose student IDs often don't have a signature or address.
Indiana requires voters to present a photo ID that has an expiration date and is issued by the state of Indiana or the federal government.
While some states allow others forms of identification to register, such as utility bills, colleges often pay dorm utilities from student fees, leaving students without these documents.
Student voter rights are a hot topic this election season because college students voted in record numbers during the primaries and subsequent voter registration drives on campuses produced even more potential voters.
"This is the most active student electorate ever," said Michele Jawando, a manager with the People For the American Way Foundation , which works to clarify state laws. "And the best tool for them to have is to know their rights."
But student voter registration drives haven't been without glitches. Permanent residency is the most debated registration regulation.
College students usually claim their home address on official paperwork and their school address for paperwork mailed throughout the school year, creating confusion for state officials. College students have been deterred from registering to vote in some states by fears or warnings that changing permanent residency could adversely affect the validity of their driver's licenses and their parents' claiming them as dependents on tax forms, financial aid, health and car insurance.
In August, a registrar in Montgomery County, Va., where Virginia Tech is located, issued statements - later reversed - warning students that they should weigh the consequences of changing permanent residency, prompting some students to quickly withdraw their registration. The official said that by registering at college, "you have declared your independence from your parents" for tax purposes and that the students could lose scholarships and were required to change addresses on driver's license and car registration within 30 days.
Local officials later issued similar warnings in North Carolina and Colorado.
Jennifer Rosenberg, a Brennan Center fellow, said the project found none of those concerns valid. Almost nothing is affected by claiming permanent residency in another state for voting purposes, she said, and residency for voting is different than residency for federal matters.
"Students have had problems voting before," Rosenberg said. "A lot of the local registrars don't understand the rules; the poll workers don't understand the rules."
Another concern of advocates are states that look for some assurance that students will stay. Virginia requires a voter to "have a physical location where they intend to stay for an unlimited time," according to the state's elections board. The regulation is a bit unclear, but Rosenberg said it cannot require students to declare that they will remain in Virginia after graduation.
"We believe states that require students to stay in-state after graduation are unconstitutional," Rosenberg said.
Out-of-state college voters aiming to skip local voting issues by using absentee ballots from their home states also have run into various requirements.
Alaska , Missouri, Wisconsin and North Carolina require absentee ballots to be witnessed by at least one person. First-time Mississippi voters who registered by mail must supply a copy of an ID in the return packet, and all absentee ballots must be witnessed by a notary.
By far, the most strenuous regulation in all the battleground states is in Michigan, which requires first-time voters to either register in person or vote in person.
Rashawn Mitchner, a Howard University senior from Michigan, said she registered in person this year while she was home for winter break and will vote from Washington, D.C., by absentee ballot. But some fellow Michigan students are not sure of their state's laws.
"I know there is some confusion," she said. "I did hear someone say on campus that they couldn't vote because they have to be in person."
Some states make it quite easy for out-of-state students to vote, according to the Brennan Center. Montana accepts a wide range of documents establishing residency, including cell phone and student housing bills. Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Wisconsin are other battleground states with the least-daunting regulations.
"Some states just make it easier or understand the needs of these students," Rosenberg said.
In response to these issues, the Student Voter Act of 2008, introduced by U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) in July, would require universities that receive federal funds to offer voter registration to students when they register for classes. "We should be making it easy," Schakowsky said at a recent Capitol Hill conference.
Rosenberg said she thinks states make it harder for out-of-state persons to register in an effort to prevent these voters from taking control of the ballot, such as in a swing state where a few thousand votes could make the difference.
Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. made a plea in September to the 10,500 eligible students at his fundamental Baptist institution in Lynchburg, Va., to register locally. "Wouldn't it be something if Liberty's votes were enough to change which presidential candidate won Virginia and maybe even the presidency itself," Falwell said in a statement.