By Dr. Pamela Reed
The New York Timesreports that E. Randall Wertz, the county registrar of voters in Montgomery County, Va., recently issued two outrageous and confusing (at best) press releases with regard to college student voter registration.
The first of the official missives made several patently false claims: 1) the parents of students who register and vote locally cannot claim their children as dependents; 2) students registering to vote using a local college address risk losing scholarships; and 3) such students will no longer be eligible for coverage under their parent’s health and auto insurance.
Coincidentally or otherwise, these official county notices went out in late August, in the midst of a highly successful voter-registration drive at Virginia Tech, the state’s largest university which boasts an enrollment of over 25,000 students (over 5,000 of whom are incoming freshmen). At that time Barack Obama supporters had registered thousands of students.
Keep in mind that Virginia is a major swing state that in past years has been reliably Republican; however, this year Barack Obama has made significant inroads, claiming 64 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 35 percent in the state’s Democratic primary in February. Many political analysts even predict that Obama could actually win the state in November, which would effectively signal nothing less than a historic sea-change in the American electoral map. So, that is the backdrop of this grossly underreported controversy that is reminiscent of Jim Crow era electoral shenanigans.
According to the Times, Sujatha Jahagirdar, program director of the Student Public Interest Research Group’s New Voters Project, indicates that her organization “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. …There’s no issue for snowbirds who live in Iowa but fly to Florida for the winter.”
Understandably, this has all lead to mass confusion and anxiety among students and parents alike. It has also prompted queries from civil rights lawyers who are quick to point out that this practice is in clear contravention of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Symm v. U.S, 439 U. S. 1105 (1979) which clearly established that students can absolutely register to vote using their local college addresses, regardless of their permanent home addresses. Jon Greenbaum, who directs the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, condemns the highly suspect activities, saying in the Times that ”what the state Board of Elections has on its Web site…sounds like it is discouraging students from registering at their school address.”
The county registrar, who blames the “mix-up” on an intern tasked with summarizing the state’s guidelines in this regard, confirms that some students have elected to withdraw their local registration, fearful that their families will be penalized economically. The registrar claims that his office’s “clarification” is driven by his interpretation of the state’s election laws. Which brings us to the heart of the matter: the Virginia code with regard to college student voter registration is fuzzy, at best, while the law of the land is unequivocal: A college student can absolutely register to vote using a local address. There is really nothing complicated about it. Still, Werner claims that ”we’ve asked for more guidance from the state legislature, but they haven’t wanted to deal with it.” The obvious question here, at least in my mind, is this: “Why ever not?”
In response to the public outcry—and the civil rights lawyers—the Virginia State Board of Elections (VSBE) sought to “modify” and “clarify” the legal basis for the misleading communications disseminated by the Montgomery county registrar. What did they do, you ask? Amazingly, they have gone so far as to post on their website a “self-guided questionnaire”—that is not required, and some would even argue that it is not allowed, by law—to “assist” college students in determining their “legal” residency. This harkening back to the very same tactics that the High Court ruled illegal almost 30 years ago when the Waller County, Texas, registrar of voters, LeRoy Symm, routinely required the students of the HBCU Prairie View A&M University to complete a residency questionnaire that is almost identical to the one on the VSBE website today—in 2008.
What does the Obama campaign have to say about this turn of events? Not much. According to the New York Times, Kevin Griffis, the campaign’s state spokesperson said “the release appeared to be a good-faith effort to convey state guidelines, not a politically motivated effort to stop voting by students.” Really? Good faith?
This writer begs to differ. Obama should have a swarm of lawyers blanketing the state, serving notice that he will not sit back and allow Virginia to be the Florida or Ohio of 2008. They should begin by demanding that the VSBE immediately pull down its confusing and perhaps illegal questionnaire. They should also be monitoring Chesterfield County, Va., very carefully-the home of Virginia State University—where nine of 64 precincts ran out of ballots during the February Democratic primary, which has prompted an ongoing Justice Department investigation. These voting irregularities, among others across the nation, are currently being examined by the Senate Judiciary Committee, as detailed in a Richmond Times-Dispatch report from Sept. 10. But I digress.
Here’s another pressing question: Whereis the Democratic National Committee (DNC)? Why are they not on the case in Virginia? Are they so afraid of being accused of “race-baiting” or playing the “race card” that they will not call a spade a spade? This is a clear violation of the voting rights of the students of Virginia Tech. I know it. You know it. The state of Virginia knows it. Barack Obama, the Harvard-trained esquire, knows it.
According to the VSEB website, “even the homeless may register by using the site ‘where they lay their head at night.’” Are college students in Virginia not entitled to the same right?
Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a diversity consultant, cultural critic, and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.