The Commonwealth Iconoclast

A site dedicated to covering issues relevant to the Commonwealth of Virginia, and nation at large, plus other interesting things too, as I see fit...

Saturday, April 01, 2006




What if all college and university students across Virginia became actively involved in local politics? How would things change? Would this be a good thing? Or, in communities hosting colleges and universities, would this turn local politics and public policy inside out and upside down? Are college students really enemies of the state?

What would happen in communities like Blacksburg, Radford or Farmville, just to name a few... where student population is truly significant in relation to the traditional "local" population in the surrounding community? What if college students really got involved in city, town and county politics?

These questions are prompted by this week’s news reports concerning the rights of students at the College of William and Mary to register to vote in the City of Williamsburg. This week, W&M President Gene R. Nichol came down highly critical of local voter registration policies suggesting that the interpretation of vague state law by local election officials concerning residency represented inappropriate and unconstitutional barriers to W&M student participation in the political process.

Adding to the controversy, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia also announced this week that it will offer legal assistance to college students at the College of William and Mary to overcome barriers to student voter registration in Williamsburg.

From time to time the issue of college and university student voter registration erupts as a contentious issue. Registration is fundamentally important in any democratic voting process and place of residency is central to the question of voter and candidate qualifications.

In the United States, the minimum legal age at which a person may vote is 18 years of age. Registered voters may vote in only one place for any given election. This requirement is to prevent unscrupulous individuals from voting multiple times at different polling places thereby corrupting the election results. But it is also important for determining the eligibility of individuals to vote for or become candidates for various elected offices representing political subdivisions including U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and state and local offices too numerous to count.

Suffice it to say, place of voter registration is important and that the orderly system of democracy depends on a clear and consistent application of public policy concerning residency.

The contentiousness of this issue stems from the mobility of the modern American society. Especially today, it is easy for people to move. People move frequently and for many different reasons. Also, some people maintain more than one place of residency at the same time. The problem is compounded in Virginia because the laws concerning residency are vague and ambiguous requiring only that a person vote in the place of “domicile” or “permanent residency.”

We would presume that one’s permanent residence would be the place where one lives most of the time… the place we call home. But when it comes to election laws, the matter is not so simple.

So how is residency determined in the case of college students or…for that matter… anybody?

Answer: In the first instance, it is up to each individual to declare where his or her residency is. Under the current ambiguous residency requirements, it is possible to physically live one place but to maintain an entirely separate place of official residency for voting purposes. Is this appropriate or fair? Probably not but it sometimes happens.

Ultimately it falls to the local voter registrar to determine who is a resident for voting and candidate eligibility purposes. Various criteria including the addresses shown on driver’s licenses, tax returns, etc., are used to make these residency determinations. The problem is that these addresses shown on driver’s licenses and tax returns and other official looking documents can and do change with little difficulty. Nor do these documents actually prove where an individual physically lives.

There are more questions concerning the college student voting issue. Why should a local voter registrar look more closely at a college student than any other citizen who may occasionally move or have more than one place of residency? If a W&M student who lives in Williamsburg most of the year wishes to declare residency in Williamsburg why should that residency be challenged?

Some might argue that college students have no “permanent” or “real” local community interests at stake and that their interests are limited solely to their college or university affiliation. This is not a good rationalization for disqualifying students from voter registration in their “adopted” college communities. College students contribute to the local economy, they pay local taxes (even if it is only sales taxes), and they rely on a whole range of local services and infrastructure. Why shouldn’t they have an opportunity to vote in local elections if they decide to declare their residency in their “adopted” college community?

Then there is another issue. If college and university students are allowed to register locally to vote in their “adopted” college community, what is preventing them from running for and being elected to local offices? Answer: Nothing but the will of the electorate.

Do we really want to have college students running for and getting elected to local offices when they don’t really live permanently in the community they are supposed to be representing? Why not? Who is really a “permanent” resident anyway? What does “permanent” mean? Is anyone really "permanent"?

Considering that Virginia has 34 four-year colleges or universities in practically every region of the Commonwealth, many communities could be effected by a more open policy of allowing college and university students to register to vote within their adopted college community. Considering that those institutions often have enrollment numbers that are significant in relation to the non-college/university affiliated population, it is easy to see that any significant increase in college student participation in the local political process would profoundly change local politics. This would be especially true if college and university students begin to seek and win local elected offices.

Would it be such a bad thing for college students to become more involved in the political process, whether it is national, state or local politics? Considering the state of politics today, could it really hurt anything?

Consider this: College students are not always "kids." Many of them are responsible adults. Many of them have served in the military. Many of them have families and hold jobs while pursuing their educations. While many young people, students and non-students, are indeed apathetic and uninformed about politics and public issues, this is not always the case. Why should public policy be used to place further barriers in the way of political participation of college students?

Perhaps it is time for the Virginia General Assembly to revisit the laws concerning voter registration. Obviously clear and uniform standards of residency are needed. But equally obvious, we need to stop arbitrarily discriminating against college and university students who choose to become politically active in their adopted college communities.

It was not so long ago that misguided official public policy here in Virginia discouraged a large segment of the population from participating in the political process. Virginia has moved past this dark legacy we hope.

Let eligible voters, including college students, establish residency and vote where they feel they can best make the most difference. Let those voters decide who the best qualified candidates are.

Maybe politics and politicians will be better if we embrace a more enlightened public policy that encourages rather than discourages political participation.

As always, reader comments are encouraged.


  • At 4/02/2006 4:33 PM, Blogger Vivian J. Paige said…

    I see nothing wrong with allowing college students to register locally; in fact, I think it should be encouraged. Getting people involved in the process early is a good thing. Hopefully, the GA will look at this (but I'm not holding my breath).

  • At 4/03/2006 7:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I live in a "college town" and I have no problem with students voting based on their college address. But when you consider the usual poor turnout for local elections (south of 20 percent?), what makes you think that a bunch of 18 -24 year olds will show up and vote? Especially considering that this group of voters have an even worse historical turnout rate?

    If they don't care who to vote for the President or Governor, why will they care about the City Council?

  • At 4/03/2006 11:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    An intriguing scenario perhaps.
    But it takes more than basic voter eligibility to be politically effective.

    If indeed college student populations around Virginia took the initiative to engage the issues, field candidates, campaign for issues and candidates, they could significantly alter the local political landscape in college communties across the Commonwealth.

    But, keep in mind, there are a lot of "ifs" there. It is not likely that a narrowly focused "college political platform" will be successful. But certainly college and university students can make a difference in local politics if they apply their energy to worthy issues and candidates.

    And yes, if it could happen, it would probably be a good thing.

  • At 4/03/2006 5:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    There's a very interesting law review article that was recently published on this issue. Not sure if it's accessible anywhere other than pay sites like Westlaw or Lexis, but the cite is "David Canupp, College Student Voting: A New Prescription for an Old Ailment, 56 Syracuse L. Rev. 145 (2006)."

    The author proposes that Congress enact a federal law making it easier for college students to vote and the article includes a draft of the law. He also talks a lot about the difficulties facing students and why the law is the way it is.

  • At 4/05/2006 12:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I would like to hear from some of these so called student political activist who think they want to change the world by getting involved with local politics... if there are any.

  • At 4/19/2006 8:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Actually, it would be a good thing for young people who have the right to vote to get involved in the debate of public issues and to exercise that right. We need to teach young people to question the world around them and to hold the political leaders accountable. Apathetic non-voters who complain about things are not helping anything.


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