Confusion in Student Voter Registrations

The widespread practice of students’ registering to vote at their college address has set off a fracas in Virginia, a battleground state in the presidential election.

Late last month, as a voter-registration drive by supporters of Senator Barack Obama was signing up thousands of students at Virginia Tech, the local registrar of elections issued two releases incorrectly suggesting a range of dire possibilities for students who registered to vote at their college.

The releases warned that such students could no longer be claimed as dependents on their parents’ tax returns, a statement the Internal Revenue Service says is incorrect, and could lose scholarships or coverage under their parents’ car and health insurance.

After some inquiries from students and parents, and more pointed questions from civil rights lawyers, the state board of elections said Friday, Sept. 5 that it was “modifying and clarifying” the state guidelines on which the county registrar had based his releases.

Student-registration controversies have been a recurring problem since 1971, when the 26st Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 from 21, and despite a 1979 ruling by the United States Supreme Court that students have the right to register at their college address.

Virginia is not the only state with murky guidelines. South Carolina’s voter-registration site, for example, says students who want to register to vote at their college address must demonstrate “a present intention to remain in the community.”

“There’s no issue for snowbirds who live in Iowa but fly to Florida for the winter,” said Sujatha Jahagirdar, program director of the Student Public Interest Research Group’s New Voters Project. “One demographic group, like students, shouldn’t have to overcome a special hurdle to vote. We impose all the responsibilities of citizenship on students, and we have to provide them with the privileges of citizenship, too.”

Ms. Jahagirdar said Virginia’s warnings were profoundly misleading. “We have been registering young voters for 25 years,” she said. “We registered 500,000 young voters in 2004, the majority on college campuses, and we’ve never heard of a single one who lost health insurance, scholarship or tax status because of where they registered to vote.”

In Virginia, the county registrar first issued an alarming release on Aug. 25, and two days later a slightly toned-down version using language taken directly from the state Board of Elections’ Web site.

That site says students can determine their legal residence, but advises them to consider certain questions. “Are you claimed as a dependent on your parents’ income tax return?” the site asks. “If you are, then their address is probably your legal residence.”

The site also tells students to check whether their coverage under their parents’ health or automobile insurance, or their scholarship, will be affected by changing their residence.

Civil rights lawyers say these guidelines are problematic and could infringe on students’ rights.

“What the state Board of Elections has on its Web site, to me, sounds like it is discouraging students from registering at their school address,” said Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Indeed, the Montgomery County registrar, E. Randall Wertz, said several students had canceled their local registration over their worry about the possible consequences. Mr. Wertz said he had issued the release to try to dispel confusion and explain what he believed to be the consequences of choosing a college address as a primary residence.

“My understanding of state law has been that by declaring you’re voting here, you’re saying this is your primary residence, your domicile, and that while you can have many abodes or residences, you can only have one domicile,” Mr. Wertz said. “And if this is your primary residence, you have to register your vehicle here, charge your driver’s license to here and so on. That’s been the interpretation at state training sessions.”

Kevin Griffis, the Obama campaign’s Virginia spokesman, said the release appeared to be a good-faith effort to convey state guidelines, not a politically motivated effort to stop voting by students.

Mr. Wertz said the initial release had been written by an intern whom he asked to summarize the guidelines. Although the second release used the state’s precise language, he said, it still left room for confusion. In other counties, registrars have refused to accept dormitory addresses as residences. But so far, the state has not set clear standards.

“Different registrars around the state interpret it differently,” he said. “We’ve asked for more guidance from the state legislature, but they haven’t wanted to deal with it.”

Mr. Greenbaum’s Voting Rights Project has been involved in other student-registration cases. Last fall, in Statesboro, Ga., in a hotly contested city council race, there were challenges to the registration of about 1,000 Georgia Southern University students who had used dormitory addresses. “We threatened suit, but the issue went away when they figured out that the challenges weren’t going to affect the results of the election,” Mr. Greenbaum said.

In 2003, in Waller County, Tex., the district attorney wrote a column in a local newspaper threatening to prosecute students at Prairie View A&M, a historically black university, for illegal voting. The project sued, and the district attorney backed down.

In the 1970s, that same county required Prairie View students who wanted to register to fill out a questionnaire asking, among other things, whether they owned property in the county, had an automobile registered there or belonged to any church, club or organization unrelated to the college. A challenge to that practice led the Supreme Court to uphold students’ rights to vote at their college address.