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Where You Vote Matters: Is College Really Home?

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.

This is 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 car is registered.

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.

But the elections board's aim was to gain the information it needs to follow the law, which distinguishes between abode and domicile, asking 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 fungible 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."

Norfolk officials aren't happy about their new inability to weed out students who really live elsewhere. But with the Obama campaign arguing that the old policy created a "chilling effect" on voter registration, the rules were eased.

Not that this is a one-sided partisan issue. The same controversy has erupted in several college towns around Virginia--at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, for example--and in Lynchburg, where Jerry Falwell Jr., the chancellor of Liberty University, a Christian college, is pushing to get all 10,500 of his students to register as voters in Virginia. Falwell is a John McCain supporter and he anticipates that the bulk of his students would be as well.

Falwell is not just urging his students--two-thirds of whom are from out of state--to register in Virginia. He has canceled classes for Election Day and arranged for city buses to transport students to the polls.

A bloc vote from a school such as Liberty could produce enough votes to swing an election: In 2006, Jim Webb ousted then-Sen. George Allen by a statewide margin of just 9,000 votes.

The fact is that there are places and circumstances all around the country where some people get to choose which state they vote in. People with second homes work the system to their advantage, as do people who move frequently. The District of Columbia is awash in residents who maintain their voting registration back where their parents live, often because it allows them to be represented in Congress, unlike most D.C. residents.

If some college students get politically involved or interested--in any direction--during their time on campus, they ought to be able to express that passion for citizenship wherever they are studying. Four years isn't a lifetime commitment, but it's every bit as long as many adults stay in one job or one location in this very mobile society.

By Marc Fisher |  September 29, 2008; 8:44 AM ET
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This is illustrative of the underlying problem: the electoral college. It's well past time to get rid of it.

As for abode vs. domicile, consider that for Americans permanently residing abroad, they vote in their last state of residence, or, for those Americans who have never lived in the United States, they vote in the last state that their parents or even grandparents lived in. So, this renders the whole abode vs. domicile discussion moot since you obviously do not need either one to vote. So, college students, people with multiple residences, people working and living in a second location for much of the year, etc., should be able to vote where they choose to do so. As long as they don't vote twice, that's enough.

Posted by: Anonymous BE | September 29, 2008 10:03 AM

I have to say that this is a weird weird issue and thankfully the Jerry Fallwell issue makes any partisan complaints null and void. When I moved to DC in the 1990s neither me, nor my friends, nor almost anyone we knew in our age group was willing to change our voter registration (or driver's license) to DC because we didn't want to lose our right to vote in congressional elections. I stayed a MD resident with a temporary domicile in DC for at least 2 years.

Posted by: DCer | September 29, 2008 10:16 AM

This is plain old-fashion voter suppression.

Jerry Falwell Jr. and the Obama students should just join together to present a united front to the VA board of elections.

Posted by: DC | September 29, 2008 10:27 AM

The Debate Was Awsome. Ive watched it twice. But I dont see how it would of changed anyones mind. You can watch the latest debate and all the debates at Cant wait till the VP debate. I know It will be better.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 29, 2008 10:31 AM

This became a heated issue in the town where I went to college. I smart local pol campaigned on campus and was elected. People from the town were incensed. The town then tried to ban voter registration drives on campus claiming the students did not actually live in the town and should not vote there.

I disagreed entirely local news at the time was almost impossible to follow if you were far away. (Now with the internet I suppose it is easier.) I felt by my junior and senior year I knew far more about where I was living than where I was from. Also the decisions made in the college town had a much larger impact on my life than those in my home town.

I do not know where the town and college stand on this issue now these many years later. But this is not just an issue of Presidential politics.

Posted by: Former College Student | September 29, 2008 10:50 AM

Marc, sometimes I don't think that you inhabit the real world. Many (?most?) college campuses - unless they're communter schools - are bubbles. Students who attend the school have limited interaction with the surrounding areas. I'd no more want folks who are Virginians for a day deciding where my electoral votes go than I'd want tombstone voting.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 29, 2008 11:01 AM

This is an issue even if you are in-state. I went to school in Charlottesville but grew up and still reside in Alexandria, where I would have preferred to vote. But I had to vote in Charlottesville and register my car there too. Didn't make a lot of sense to me.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 29, 2008 11:07 AM

What's to keep them from voting once where they go to school and also vote absentee where they're from? I think we ought to go back to where we'd just let property owners vote, that'd be simpler!

Posted by: Stick | September 29, 2008 11:13 AM

Showing once again that all questions can be resolved on the basis of economics; virtually all state schools have rules on the books that make it clear who is a resident with the idea of protecting their tuition revenue. The question of whether you can vote in the state should be based on the same qualifications of whether a student qualifies as "in-state" for tuition.
If you're "in-state", it shouldn't matter what part of the state you're from in terms of voting for the offices elected state-wide like President, Senator, Governor.

Posted by: no-brainer | September 29, 2008 11:18 AM

the electoral college is very important and why should the election of the president be based on the east and west coast alone...

Posted by: Dwight | September 29, 2008 11:22 AM

base the right to register to vote on the driving license as a means of determining residentcy...

Posted by: Dwight | September 29, 2008 11:25 AM

I had a huge problem with the issue of "domicile" when I was a graduate student in Ann Arbor MI. I was attempting to get in-state tuition for my 2nd graduate degree, at the time I had lived in Michigan for over 3 years, had worked in Michigan and paid Michigan taxes (drivers license too), but the University said since I didn't OWN a house (what grad student could??) I had not established a domicile and thus could not qualify for in-state tuition.

This is being used and abused by universities constantly!!!

Posted by: amw | September 29, 2008 11:35 AM

Strategic voting? California gets two Senators to represent the interests of 25 million people. Wyoming gets the same two senators to represent less than half a million people. That gives Wyoming citizens a fifty-to-one advantage in Senatorial representation. And that's not only "legal", its "Constitutional." But neither of those terms have anything to do with equality or fairness. Equal Justice Under Law indeed. We need more effort to Form a More Perfect Union.

Posted by: citizenw | September 29, 2008 11:51 AM

I would say it makes more sense to use state/local income tax payment as the criteria...not everybody drives...

Posted by: citizenw | September 29, 2008 11:54 AM

Legalese is no defense to voter disenfranchisement.

I didn't know where I would end up "starting my life" after law school. Hence, my apartment was my domicile until I knew otherwise.

Disenfranching eligible voters because they may not end up being permanent residents is a federal crime.

Posted by: AZ Atty | September 29, 2008 12:28 PM

An American citizen student of age living on a college campus, no matter how far from his or her parent's home, should be allowed to vote in the college town if they register to do so. Plain and simple. That is their residence. They do not live with their parents any more -- except maybe for that long summer visit after school ends. College is their home, however weird a home it may seem.

The republicans like to pretend their efforts to keep people from voting are in order to prevent fraud. But does anyone really believe that college students are running some kind of large scale scam to vote twice? Or that homeless people are spending their sparse money traveling from town to town on election day? Or that people whose homes are under foreclosure are scamming the system in order to vote for president? Common, really?

The only scary thing I've heard in this conversation is that Falwell is busy telling people that if they don't vote from McCain they'll go to hell and then is forcing them onto buses to go vote like he wants them to. Now that's interesting.

Posted by: letsallvote | September 29, 2008 1:10 PM


The Supreme Court has ruled that it is permissable to require residency for a year in a state before being eligible for in-state tuition; you should have challenged your school in court--they surely knew better. [Depending on when you graduated and Michigan's statute of limitations, it might not be too late to sue for a refund.] On the other hand, residency rules for voter eligibility are much more lenient--I can't remember the exact maximum the Supreme Court allows, but I think it's 3 months. The reason for the difference is that voting is a fundamental right (although believe it or not, there is no constitutional right to vote for president!), while qualifying for in-state tuition is not a fundamental right and the state has an interest in giving the people who paid the taxes that supported the educational institution a break on their costs in attending it.

Posted by: Erin-JD | September 29, 2008 1:19 PM

I seem to recall a Post article on this very subject in the last few weeks. I believe this issue has gone to the Supreme Court and was decided that college students could vote in the state where they go to school. Localities ocassionally attempt to block students from voting but that amounts to voter intimidation, which is illegal.

Posted by: Dee El | September 29, 2008 1:30 PM

Falwell's (damn his soul) son is causing trouble now? Great.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 29, 2008 1:38 PM

Didn't Carrington v. Rash settle this issue? Here's a good analysis from a Texan point of view.

Posted by: FARights | September 29, 2008 1:54 PM

Students at Virginia schools who live on campus are counted in Virginia for the Decennial Census, so I have no problems with them registering to vote based on their school address.

Posted by: Concerned reader | September 29, 2008 2:21 PM

From a homeowner in a college town (and an ex-student):
Students have ZERO long-term interest in the local community where they attend school. What do they care if policies they vote for decrease property values and tax income for the community? All they care about is getting through their 4 years as cheaply as possible and with as few restrictions on their behavior as possible.
As long as they are dependent on their parents, make them vote where their parents live. That is where their long-term interests lie.
College towns should be separately incorporated from "their" college, and should keep ever-vigilant to prevent homeowners in their town from turning their houses into de facto apartments. Keep the students ghettoized.

Posted by: dmm | September 29, 2008 2:34 PM

This is a settled issue (decided by the Supreme Court in 1979) and the Virginia Board of Elections is not just out of line here but is illegally suppressing students' right to vote.

It is not a new tactic taken by VA. When I moved to Virginia in 1996 as a law student I was told that I could not register to vote in Virginia because I was a student. Luckily I knew better and was able to register to vote because I pushed the issue and new the law before calling (my question was were to get an application and they told me to do it when I got a new driver's license, which I wasn't getting since I was on my parents' insurance at the time).

Why is this persisting? And why hasn't Virginia been stopped?

Posted by: Furious | September 29, 2008 3:12 PM

"From a homeowner in a college town (and an ex-student):
Students have ZERO long-term interest in the local community where they attend school. What do they care if policies they vote for decrease property values and tax income for the community? All they care about is getting through their 4 years as cheaply as possible and with as few restrictions on their behavior as possible.
As long as they are dependent on their parents, make them vote where their parents live. That is where their long-term interests lie.
College towns should be separately incorporated from "their" college, and should keep ever-vigilant to prevent homeowners in their town from turning their houses into de facto apartments. Keep the students ghettoized."

Maybe this was your particular experinece, but don't lump all college students together simply because you refused to take an active role in the community you lived in (and apparently believe that its the same for every single college student ever). Maybe I didn't take quite the same interest in property taxes, but as someone who worked for Parks & Rec in college, and was deeply involved in staffing its youth programs, I was very interested in making sure P&R had enough funding to subsidize the costs for low-income families, pay wages for part time employees such as myself, and had the funds to keep paying the other bills. And you can be sure that when it came time to vote, I made sure I knew who was for and against the Parks & Rec programs. And that's just a single area I was interested in; there were many more.

Keeping students ghettoized only increases their isolation and thus the tensions between students and everyone else. For better or worse, many college towns wouldn't exist without the campuses and students, and it seems awfully short-sighted to limit their participation in politics, simply because they are more eaily labeled "transient."

How, may I ask, would a student who lives 8-12 months of the year in another town, or even state, sometimes clear across the country, in any better position to vote in the local elections of where their parents live? Are these students somehow interested in property tax issues there? Do the day-to-day issues of governance in their parents' town somehow affect them more than those of the location of their college?

Posted by: Birdie | September 29, 2008 3:39 PM

Hey thats fine. If you want to take away my right to vote I'll take the $30,000+ I'm putting into your economy every year to another state.

Posted by: College student | September 30, 2008 8:30 AM

I don't undeststand. We're talking about students voting in a NATIONAL election, not local elections (which everyone tends to ignore). Why should students be judged by how much they are invovled in the community?

Posted by: Jessica | September 30, 2008 10:56 AM

Marc is right. Given the mobility of today’s population someone who lives 9 months out of the year for at least 4 years is a transient? These people are tax paying citizens---check the share sales tax made up of your local budget.

As hard as companies---especially companies outside major metros where many of our college towns are---are working to attract and hold onto young talented people in the face of pending boomer retirements we should be looking for any opportunity to tie young people to our communities. If there’s a surge of youth voter registration this year we’re fools not to embrace it.

Posted by: there's a big picture here | September 30, 2008 12:30 PM

All these out-of-state students who suddenly want to register to vote in Virginia should be reminded that, as new residents of Virginia, they have 30 days to register and pay motor vehicle fees and the personal property taxes that all residents of this state must pay.

Posted by: Anonymous Va. Taxpayer | September 30, 2008 1:05 PM

Reader Brian Hannigan of Arlington offers some valuable information and insight into how college students are categorized in the law:

"Way back in 1971, I was national field director for an organization called National Student Vote, Inc.--a nonpartisan organization that was nonetheless widely viewed as a Democratic front group. We
advocated for passage of the 26th Amendment, and then stimulated and
organized youth voter registration drives for the newly enfranchised
around the country, particularly on college campuses.

Coincidentally, during this time I visited a professor of political science in California named Roy V. Peel, who had been Director of the U.S. Census from 1950-1953 -- and that during that time, he had made a policy decision that the Census would count college students living away from their parents' homes at their college residences.

As I recall, Student Vote and others used that fact very effectively in arguing for the right of students to register and vote in their college towns. As you know, various forms of federal and state aid are
apportioned according to population, so college towns actually have a great deal at stake in this census determination.

I just checked the website, and found the following in the rules for the 2000 Census:

The Census Bureau has developed residence rules that provide instructions on where people should be counted in Census 2000. The following sections give the residence rules for people in various living situations.

Boarding school students - Counted at their parental home rather than at the boarding school.

College students living away from home while attending college - COUNTED WHERE THEY ARE LIVING AT COLLEGE. (emphasis added)

College students living at their parental home while attending college - Counted at their parental home.

Posted by: Fisher | September 30, 2008 2:40 PM

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