Recently I volunteered at a voter registration on campus where I received a common question from students unsure if they could register to vote on campus: "I'm not from Lincoln. I live in Omaha. Can I register to vote in Lincoln?"
I discovered that many students typically don't know whether they can register on campus if their permanent address is outside of Lincoln. Many believed they had to vote at their polling site at home. They didn't know they could vote at their college addresses.
For students attending college away from home, voting at their home precinct is impractical or not an option. Some students, lacking confidence in voting absentee and unable to return home, simply sit out of the election process.
While registration rules can be murky, it doesn't help when state and local officials mislead and lie to students regarding voter registration rules, which has been the case in Virginia.
Prior to the Virginia primary, local officials denied many college students registration on campus at Norfolk State University because they registered under their dormitory address. Election commissioners sent the students questionnaires to assess their residency, asking if they owned property in Norfolk or if they intended to become permanent residents of the city. Local voting registrars thus argued that the students were not Virginia residents and ineligible to vote in Norfolk.
That additional layer of bureaucracy effectively deterred campus registration in Norfolk at Norfolk State University and Old Dominion University, instilling doubt among many students uncertain of their rights in the registration process.
The questionnaire "was a big deterrent [for registering to vote]," explained Old Dominion student Mary Alana Welch to the Virginia Pilot. "It gave me the impressions that I wasn't suppose[d] to be registering here." The Virginia Pilot reported Welch, preferring to vote in person rather than by absentee ballot, never submitted her registration and remains uncertain about her rights.
Primaries like the hotly-contested Virginia race on Feb. 12 experienced a surge in voter registration and turnout, but many students couldn't participate. Despite these uncertainties, Democrats have pushed massive get-out-the-vote efforts in Virginia, a traditionally-red state that has become a swing state in this year's election, in a play to flip the state blue and win its 13 electoral votes.
According to a Sept. 18 Washington Post article, 280,000 voters have been registered in Virginia since January. While voters aged 18-24 typically vote less often, analysts are forecasting one of the highest turnouts for this demographic since the 1972 election, the first presidential election in which the voting age was lowered to 18. In Virginia, young voters are crucial for Democrats's hopes to turn Virginia blue.
Yet many students and officials don't know students' rights. This is particularly troubling since the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed nearly 30 years earlier, in Symm v. U.S., that students have the right to register and claim residency at their college address.
Most college students face a unique situation living at two addresses: at their parents' home and at school. Speaking to the Virginia Pilot, Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, argued that "If homeless people have the right to vote by choosing their principal residence, college students ought to have that same right."
Although Obama's campaigners pressured the Norfolk Electoral Board to abandon their questionnaires, other problems have popped up elsewhere in Virginia.
In August, election officials in Montgomery County, home to Virginia ech, released a misleading statement that suggested students who registered to vote at their college address could face unexpected consequences that could jeopardize their economic status.
TheSept. 7 New York Timesarticle "Voter Registration by Students Raises Cloud of Consequences"explained that the local election official's statement warned that the parents of students registering to vote at Virginia Tech could no longer claim their children as dependents on their tax returns. Moreover, the statement claimed that those students could lose financial aid and coverage under their parents' car and health insurance. The IRS denied that a student's dependency status would change.
Such statements have come under intense scrutiny by various politicians, particularly the Obama campaign, which alleged that the statements will discourage students from registering at their college.
Discourage is a mild way to put it. Registration is murky and obtuse enough for some students without them having to hear that they'll lose their scholarships, health and car insurance coverage.
While it is arguable whether Virginia officials purposefully attempted to suppress voter registrations there, the misleading and outright deceiving language used by county election officials, particularly their lack of knowledge regarding students' rights to register on college campuses, is unacceptable.
Events in Virginia and my discussions with students at registration tables in Nebraska show that we still need to make headway in clarifying the voter registration process.