Students Push Congress To Reform Voter Registration

This story was written by Allison Stice, The Diamondback


WASHINGTON - Discrimination against student voters around the country who are registered at their college address prompted a House of Representatives Committee on House Administration hearing Thursday.About a dozen University of Marylandstudents showed up in support, wearing yellow StudentVote.org T-shirts, even though Greg Sehwab, the campus organizer for the university chapter of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, said there have been no problems with the Prince George's County Board of Elections."We've seen none of the scare tactics that other boards of election have used across the country," he said. "We're working well together for a good turnout."The hearing addressed a host of incidents nationwide. A registrar from the Board of Elections in Virginia's Montgomery County, home to Virginia Tech, warned newly registered student voters in an Aug. 25 message that they could lose their insurance and scholarships if they filled in registration forms with their school address. Virginia Code would require those students to then update their identification and car information in the next 30 days, the release stated, prompting several students to cancel their local registration.Soon after, county boards issued similar warnings at Furman University in South Carolina and at Colorado College. In previous elections, officials turned away out-of-state student voters in Michigan and Indiana because they didn't have a state-issued driver's license or because their university IDs did not list their address.Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) began the hearing by saying young voters are energized, but that officials are blocking them from civic engagement by issuing false warnings or requiring IDs that students simply don't have."Studies show that if [citizens] cannot register and vote on the first try, they are not likely to try again," Brady said.Voting laws vary by state and county, but students can be registered at their school address and still be claimed as dependents on their parents' tax filings, according to the Internal Revenue Service, and insurance companies won't drop them. MaryPIRG New Voters Project Director Sujatha Jahagirdar, who testified at the hearing, said that out of 500,000 registered student voters in 2004, there were no cases of anyone losing health care, tax status or financial aid."That's what is frankly appalling about these warnings," Jahagirdar said. "They are unsubstantiated and create a chilling effect of student voter turnout.""In a lot of states, they make it really difficult for anyone to register," added junior anthropology major and New Voters Project intern Adam Tiehen. "We can only speculate as to why, whether it's partisanship because young voters tend to vote liberal or if it just makes more work for the registrar."Sheri Iachetta, general registrar at the Charlottesville County board of elections in Virginia, testified that each registrar interprets state law differently and some want proof from students that they plan to stay in the area, or have a vested interest in local government, which she considers a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act."If their taxes are awarded locally, then their vote should be local as well," she said.Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said she was troubled by efforts to intentionally mislead or discourage young voters. The Student Voter Act bill she co-sponsored in July, which would require federally funded colleges to provide voter registration, addresses only one of the challenges, she said.This spring, the Maryland General Assembly debated a student voting rights act which would have allowed students to register to vote when they sign up for classes and created a campus coordinator of registration and education efforts, but the bill died in committee.Jahagirdar told the committee that the New Voters Project, which is run by Student Public Interest Research Group and is the oldest nd largest nonpartisan youth vote campaign, has three goals: to strike down ID laws, end restrictive interpretation of the law and improve voting infrastructure by adding new polling locations and more machines.MaryPIRG interns said out-of-state students have not been wary of registering at their campus address."A lot of students choose to stay in their home state because of how it stands in the election," said sophomore psychology major Brian Lentz."By living in Maryland and going to school here, you're contributing to this state's economy, so it should be your choice as an 18-year-old citizen where you decide to vote," Tiehen added.
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