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.
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