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The Postman Always Rings My Dorm Room Twice

If you live in a Radford University dorm room and wish to register to vote in Virginia, be prepared to argue with a local election official....

  • Jennifer S. Rosenberg
October 3, 2008

If you live in a Radford University dorm room and wish to register to vote in Virginia this election, be prepared to argue with your local registrar.

One local election official in Virginia is automatically denying all registration applications from students who list a dorm address as their residence.  At least one student's application was initially denied on this basis, and only approved after she went to the registrar's office and complained in person.  [For the story, click here.]  This registrar insists he's always rejected dorm addresses and will keep doing so, because he doesn't consider them sufficiently "permanent," as that term is used in Viriginia's election law.  However, such a restrictive interpretation of the law violates a Supreme Court ruling that says students must be held to the same neutral residence standards as other voters.  More shocking, the registrar's practice also violates explicit guidelines posted on Virginia's own Board of Elections website, which state:  "A dorm or college addresss can be an acceptable residential address and does not disqualify you from voting."  It can't get much clearer than that.

Virginia law gives a degree of discretion to local registrars, some of whom probably have grown accustomed to running their precincts like little fiefdoms.  But just because a practice has been used for years doesn't mean it's constitutional.  Denying a student's registration because she lists a dorm as her residence isn't just unlawful, it also violates core principles of our democracy, under which every eligible citizen may vote regardless of the type of home they live in - be it a dorm room, a condo, a friend's basement, or even no home at all (yes, homeless people can vote).

It's unclear how many students' registration forms have been denied or how many students have been deterred from registering because of this issue.  It appears as though the Virginia chapter of the ACLU is taking action with respect to the local registrar in Radford.  Hopefully, he and other election officials who've been making up their own rules will conform their procedures to the law so that no more students find that rejection letter in the mail.

For more information about voting requirements in Virginia or any other state, especially as they pertain to students, check out the Brennan Center's Legal Guide to Student Voting here.