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Virginia Officials Blocking Eligible Student Voters

Voting advocates urge local registrar to stop challenging students with university address listed on registration forms.

November 1, 2008
For Immediate Release

Contact: Tim Bradley, Brennan Center for Justice, (646) 452–5637 or (314) 440–9936
Rebecca K. Glenberg, ACLU of Virginia, (804) 644–8080
Stacie Miller, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, (202) 662–8317

Voting Advocates Urge Local Registrar to Stop Challenging Students with University Address Listed on Registration Forms

Radford, Virginia – After learning that local election officials have rejected numerous applications of eligible students who attempted to register using their valid university addresses, voting rights advocates at the Brennan Center for Justice, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia wrote yesterday to the Registrar of the City of Radford, Virginia, urging that office to remedy the situation so that eligible students at Radford University who were wrongly rejected can cast ballots that will be counted on Election Day. The letter noted that Radford Registrar Tracy Howard has delayed or refused to register students providing university addresses as their home address, in some cases rejecting such registrations outright, by requiring such applicants to meet additional and confusing registration requirements. The affected student applications number in the hundreds if not the thousands.

“I’ve lived in Radford for six years,” says graduate student Amber Keen. “I’m a Resident Director in a dorm—this is where I live, so this is where I registered to vote.” Keen sent in her voter registration form with her university address a month before the registration deadline, but only received a rejection letter a week after the deadline. “Nobody called to ask me to clarify my address, and now the registrar is saying that his hands are tied and I was too late.”

Registrar Howard’s practice has been to treat all registrations listing a university dorm room as the applicant’s home address as presumptively invalid. In some cases Mr. Howard sent postcards or emails, or made telephone phone calls, asking the applicants what they considered to be their “home address.” Applicants who were sent a postcard and failed to return it within ten days were rejected. These post cards also were written in a way that misleadingly suggested that the initial information the students had provided was inadequate, and applicants who supplemented their address information in response appear to have been rejected. In other cases valid student applications appear simply to have been rejected outright.

In an August 30, 2008 interview with the Roanoke Times, Registrar Howard explained that his practices derive from his belief that university addresses are merely temporary and therefore inadequate voting residencies: “A dorm is generally—and I say generally—the same thing as a long-term motel stay.” In a story published on October 14, 2008 in the Radford campus newspaper, Howard reiterated this sentiment, saying that “By law, you are required to be a citizen of Radford [to vote in Radford]…”It’s fairly clear who has lived here for over four years and who hasn’t…the citizens are first and foremost."

“We believe the local Registrar’s procedures are discriminatory and unlawful and have resulted in hundreds of students being unable to register and vote in Radford. The Registrar is not entitled to presume that students are not ‘really’ citizens of Radford and to place discriminatory requirements upon students attempting to register and vote in their community.” said Monica Youn at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“We are concerned that there is a pattern across Virginia of arbitrary and unlawful barriers to student voting rights, and this is a particularly bad example of it. Students have a right to vote not only in national elections, but in local elections and on the issues that affect the community where they live. We will consider the need to litigate these issues not only in Radford but in any jurisdiction that places these barriers in the path of eligible citizens.” said Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center.

The letter submitted yesterday explained that Registrar Howard’s procedures violate Virginia law, explicit guidelines issued by the State Board of Elections stating that dorm room addresses are acceptable residencies for voting purposes, and the U.S. Constitution.

“Students living on campus have the same right to vote as any other resident of the community. If they registered using dormitory addresses, they have provided sufficient information to vote, end of story. With so much voter enthusiasm this election, it is a shame that officials are taking steps to block eligible voters just as they are trying to participate as voters in our democracy for the first time,” said Rebecca Glenberg, ACLU attorney.

In their letter the voting rights advocates urged Mr. Howard to remedy the situation on Election Day, by providing poll workers with lists of all individuals who were rejected after submitting registrations listing a university address for a residency address. Upon affirming that they have not voted or registered elsewhere, these registrants should be able to cast regular ballots.

“We hope the Registrar will provide immediate assurances that election officials will ensure both that no student will be kept off the rolls for failure to return a postcard, phone call, email or letter asking them to restate their ‘home address,' and that all students who submitted registration applications using dorm addresses will have the opportunity to cast regular ballots, if they have not been able to register or vote elsewhere,” explained Jennifer Rosenberg of the Brennan Center.

“Any students who are confused about their registration status or face challenges at the polls when they go to vote should contact the Election Protection hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE. Students should not forget that they have the right to cast a vote that counts,” said Jon Greenbaum of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The complete letter submitted on Wednesday, October 29, 2008 is available here.

For more information on student voting rights, visit the Brennan Center’s Legal Guide to Student Voting here.