Skip Navigation

Delaware Rules Keep Students from Voting

Published: September 27, 2004

Delaware News Journal
September 27, 2004

Delaware Rules Keep Students from Voting
By Jennifer Weiser

Until last week, Delaware had a written policy denying students living in dormitories the right to register and vote in their college communities. Advocates, including my organization, informed Delaware Elections Commissioner Frank Calio that the policy was unconstitutional. In 1979, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of all students, regardless of where they live, to register in their school community if they consider it to be their residence.

So how did Calio respond? By removing the controversial sentence from the procedures manual and replacing it with an even more restrictive policy.

The new policy puts the burden on Delaware college students to prove residency in the state. Students must produce, in addition to college ID, one of a list of acceptable documents that most students do not possess. A student is not likely to have a current apartment lease or an electric bill with a local address if she lives in a dorm.

Students failing to produce these documents are given another avenue to exercise their constitutional right to vote. But the alternative is equally problematic. The policy lists a series of questions to be posed to students to determine residency. These questions are largely irrelevant and many are certain to put roadblocks in front of college students seeking to register at school.

For example, the new policy asks where would you live if forced to discontinue your studies? Where do you keep your permanent possessions? Unless possessions mean only a computer and stereo, the answer is likely to be: at my parents’ home.

The Constitution’s equal protection clause prohibits states from subjecting students to registration requirements that are more rigorous than the requirements faced by other citizens.

For that reason, state and federal courts around the United States have struck down similar policies. In Texas, Michigan and New York, presumptions against residency and registration in college communities have been struck down. In New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Vermont and other states, courts have rejected student questioning similar to that called for by Calio.

Why is Delaware employing illegal tactics to obstruct first-time voters? Calio justifies his policy with a recent opinion from Attorney General M. Jane Brady. Brady’s opinion cites the one state court in the nation, North Carolina’s Supreme Court, which has upheld such severe restrictions on student voting.

To make matters worse, Delaware’s policy threatens students with the loss of financial aid or scholarships if they register to vote in Delaware. It is hard to think of a more powerful disincentive for Delaware college students who want to vote in the state they consider home.

And the threat is an empty one. Virginia is the only state sending students to Delaware that considers voter registration when determining residency for its financial aid programs. Even there, voter registration is only one factor among many considered.

The only lawful remedy is for Calio to implement a policy that refrains from requiring Delaware’s students to provide more information or documentation than other voters. Better yet, the state’s colleges and universities could follow the lead of schools in other states that provide a list of matriculated students to local election officials, so the residences of students may be verified.

At a time when voter turnout for young people has reached catastrophically low rates, it is essential that Calio remove all barriers to student voting.

Jennifer Weiser is an Associate Counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and serves as legal counsel to a coalition protecting the voting rights of students.