Last week, Virginia’s Montgomery County, home to Virginia Tech, issued a press release regarding proper protocol for college students registering to vote. In interviews with Inside Higher Ed Tuesday, it was described by turns as "unsubstantiated,” “chilling,” and (more generously) as not “incredibly encouraging or friendly.”
It reads, in part: “The Code of Virginia states that a student must declare a legal residence in order to register. A legal residence can be either a student’s permanent address from home or their current college residence. By making Montgomery County your permanent residence, you have declared your independence from your parents and can no longer be claimed as a dependent on their income tax filings -- check with your tax professional. If you have a scholarship attached to your former residence, you could lose this funding. And, if you change your registration to Montgomery County, Virginia Code requires you to change your driver’s license and car registration to your present address within 30 days.”
The county registrar of elections said Tuesday that the memo was intended to counteract the absence of cautionary information given to students signed up through the ubiquitous get-out-the-vote registration drives. Generally speaking, however, those interviewed for this article said the warnings are, at worst, farfetched and misleading, or, at best, overstated and not typically supported in reality.
And, in a year in which historic youth voter turnout is anticipated, and the Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has been propelled by college students’ support, this case in the battleground state of Virginia is “not an isolated incident,” said Sujatha Jahagirdar, program director for the Student Public Interest Research Group’s nonpartisan New Voters Project.
“For a county registrar to issue what really are in our experience unsubstantiated warnings for a particular demographic is alarming,” said Jahagirdar. “It’s upsetting that this is coming up in Virginia. But it’s even more upsetting that the ability of young people to vote is questioned in many other states too.”
She added: “In 25 years of registering young voters around the country, none of the staff has ever heard of a single incident where a student has lost their tax status or their scholarship because of where they’ve registered to vote.”
Meanwhile, Obama’s campaign, which has been registering voters on Virginia Tech’s campus, has called the information propagated by the county "erroneous." The campaign’s Virginia spokesman, Kevin Griffis, cited an exemption in the U.S. tax code allowing dependents to live away from home while attending school.
And he said that while students should check with their individual health insurers, in the campaign's calls to 10 top health insurance companies, none indicated that registering to vote at a college address would be grounds for dismissing students from coverage, "and in fact some of them laughed at us." (In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Lynne High, a spokeswoman for the mammoth United Healthcare, echoed that students covered on their parents' health insurance plans aren't affected if they register to vote in another state.)
“We should be trying to engage as many people as possible in the political process, and have them take part in the civic life of their communities. In the case of students at Virginia Tech, their community is Blacksburg. That’s where they live; that’s where they call home. They should be able to vote there,” Griffis said. (The campaign of the Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, did not return a call to its Virginia state office Tuesday.)
Montgomery County followed up its first dispatch with a somewhat more neutrally worded news release two days later, on August 27. This one raised similar issues but in the form of questions, which students were prompted to consider in deciding whether to register to vote where their family lives or where their college is.
Among them: “Are you claimed as a dependent on your parents’ income tax return? If you are, then their address is probably your legal residence.... Do you have a scholarship that would be affected if you changed your legal residence?... Would your health, automobile or other insurance coverage be affected by a change in your legal residence? If you are covered under your parents’ insurance policy, your protection could be affected by a change in your legal residence."
The language in the county’s second release was taken from the Virginia State Board of Elections’ Web site, which in itself is discouraging, said Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in Washington. “If you were to look at this as a student, the suggestion that the State Board of Elections is giving you is, 'You probably should not register to vote here. Don’t register to vote here.' We think that’s the wrong message to be sending.”
In an interview, E. Randall Wertz, the general registrar of elections for Montgomery County, cited the State Board of Election’s guidance on college student registration as what he relied upon. He explained that, in sending the memo, he was attempting to combat either the misinformation, or lack of information, that college students have to consider when signing up through voter registration drives.
“What’s happening is they’re going out across campus over here and just getting people to sign the registration forms left and right and not telling them issues to consider, or telling them the incorrect information,” said Wertz. "Before they make the decision to register with us, they need to check with the accountant who does the taxes. They need to check if they're on their parents' health insurance. By being at a separate permanent address, does that affect their insurance?"
“I was just trying to inform them of things to consider, and then once they've made an informed decision and decide to come with us, we welcome them,” Wertz said.
“We don’t want to suppress them from voting and we certainly want them to vote. It’s just, what’s best for them is what they need to consider. Unfortunately, the campaigns, they’re not concerned with what’s best for the student. They’re generally concerned with just getting people signed up."
From Tuesday through Friday of last week, voter registration drives at Virginia Tech brought more than 2,000 new registrations to the county, Wertz said. He also estimated that about 25 students have called to ask if the county could cancel the processing of their registration.