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Misleading VA Board of Elections Website Could Deter Student Voters

Misleading information on its website that could deter thousands of eligible voting age students from registering and voting in Virginia in the 2008 election. Voting rights advocates urge Secretary Rodrigues to modify student residency questionnaire.

September 16, 2008
logoFor Immediate Release

Contact: Tim Bradley, BerlinRosen Public Affairs, (646) 452–5637
Jennifer Rosenberg, Brennan Center for Justice, (212) 998–6130

Voting Rights Advocates Urge Secretary Rodrigues to Modify Student Residency Questionnaire

Richmond, VA – In an ongoing effort to dispel myths about voter registration requirements that could impede student voters this November, today the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law released a letter to the Secretary of the Virginia State of Board of Elections urging the state to clarify misleading information on its website that could deter thousands of eligible voting age students from registering and voting in Virginia in the 2008 election.

The letter comes one week after the Center launched its Legal Guide to Student Voting—an online, interactive state-by-state analysis of voting laws tailored specifically to college students. With thousands of young and new voters expected to participate in the 2008 election, the guide and letter submitted to the Virginia Board of Elections aim to clarify voter registration requirements for students, particularly those attending college away from home.

In the 2-page letter submitted to Secretary Nancy Rodrigues last Thursday, attorneys at the Brennan Center cited serious concerns that the “Voting Residency Questionnaire” on the portion of the website designated for college students could create more discouragement than assistance for students hoping to determine their legal residence and register.

“While we appreciate and welcome all efforts to provide students with accurate information regarding their voting rights, and while the questionnaire appears to be intended to help students determine their place of legal residence, we believe that the questionnaire actually may confuse, mislead, and intimidate student voters,” writes Jennifer Rosenberg, a fellow in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center.

The letter cites two concerns about the student information posted on the Board of Elections website—that the personal questions on the “Voting Residency Questionnaire” may intimidate students and dissuade them from registering, and that the information requests are irrelevant to determining voting residency.

“The questionnaire does not explain the significance of any of the questions, nor does it indicate the repercussions of any particular answer. While the instructions on the questionnaire state that students do not have to submit a completed questionnaire to election officials, students reading the questionnaire might expect to be questioned on these issues or to suffer negative repercussions on matters completely unrelated to and unaffected by their decision to register and to vote in Virginia,” writes Rosenberg.

“Second, and perhaps more importantly, the questionnaire asks students about factors that are completely irrelevant to determining voting residency,” she continues.

"For example, the questionnaire asks whether the applicant is ‘currently enrolled in an institution of higher learning’ and, if so, whether he or she pays out-of-state tuition. The amount a student pays for tuition has no bearing on residency for voting purposes, nor does a student’s enrollment status.

“The questionnaire also asks whether the applicant is classified as a dependent on another individual’s tax return. Again, a student’s tax dependent status has no bearing on her ability to establish residency for voting purposes, and thus the question itself is misleading. In addition to potentially misleading students about voting residency requirements, these questions may mislead students about the potential consequences of registering to vote on tax or tuition-related matters. In virtually all cases, registering to vote has no impact on such matters,” writes Wendy Weiser, a co-author of the letter and director of the Center’s voting rights and elections work.

The letter concludes with the recommendation that the Board of Elections modify the questionnaire ore remove it from the website entirely.

“Sometimes students are discouraged from voting in their school communities because they believe the law sees them as temporary residents. But students often live at college for four years and usually can vote where they go to college or where they lived beforehand. The majority of the nation’s students should have no trouble registering and voting this November if they know their rights,” said Sara Conrath, a co-author of the Legal Guide to Student Voting and an NYU Law student.

“Students in Virginia and across the country can refer to this Guide for accurate, succinct information that will help them effectively exercise their right to vote this November,” said Mimi Franke, who helped co-author the Guide while a student at the NYU School of Law.

For a copy of the letter submitted to the Secretary of Virginia State Board of Elections, click here.

To use the Brennan Center’s Legal Guide to Student Voting, click here.