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Silencing the Students

How 134 stubborn registrars in Virginia could swing the vote against Obama.

For the first time since 1964, Democrats actually have a chance of winning Virginia’s 13 electoral votes. Barack Obama is up 4.8% according to the Real Clear Politics average, and according to Nate Silver, Virginia could be one of this election’s decisive swing states. And, in a state with 161 colleges and 483,159 students, the predominantly Democratic youth vote could play a huge role in tipping the election Obama’s way.

But there’s a hold-up: Virginia’s local laws make it exceedingly difficult for students to register in their college towns. Indeed, though other states like Idaho and Tennessee also make student registration so difficult as to border on disenfranchisement, the barriers to student voter registration in Virginia are, some experts say, some of the most problematic in the country.

At Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, for instance, students who visited their local registration office last month were met with dire warnings from the Montgomery County registrar, Randall Wertz. Wertz issued official releases telling students that, by registering, “you have declared your independence from your parents and can no longer be claimed as a dependent on their income tax filings. ... If you have a scholarship attached to your former residence, you could lose this funding.” Juanita Pitchford, the registrar for Fredericksburg, where the University of Mary Washington is located, requires that all students interview with her before registering so she can decide on a case-by-case basis whether they can vote. “The student must prove that it is their intent to be considered living in Fredericksburg,” said Pitchford (who, in 2004, denied applications from all on-campus students), speaking to The Free Lance-Star. Recently, Pitchford said, “I speak to every student ... and I explain the full ramifications” of registering, including telling students that registering in Fredericksburg can jeopardize scholarships and tax dependency on their parents.

Other problems abound as well. In Williamsburg, home of the College of William and Mary, a now-fired registrar changed standards for voting ten times between 2004 and 2007. One time, for instance, he required a local driver’s license of students; another time he required a local cell phone number. In Norfolk, until a push by the Obama campaign helped change practices, students wishing to register were sent misleading “questionnaires” implying they were ineligible, thus discouraging them from following through.

Such efforts have been called unethical, and they may not jibe with Supreme Court rulings on voting rights. A recent article in The New York Times exposing what Wertz had done in Blacksburg referenced a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that “students have the right to register at their college address.” But registration standards are set out at the state level, and while Virginia’s legislation doesn’t explicitly restrict student voting, its vague language allows registrars to turn away students. State law requires that all voters prove “domicile” where they wish to register, but it defines the term loosely. Registrars may decide on their own whether dormitories can be considered “domicile,” or if a voter must pay local taxes to register, for example. Student registration is, therefore, left almost entirely up to the whim of Virginia’s 134 registrars, who may interpret the clause about domicile however they choose, while staying technically within the bounds of state law.

Activists from the ACLU and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, along with Obama state officials, are working frantically to reform Virginia’s byzantine standards on a local level, stubborn registrar by stubborn registrar. Pitchford, the Fredericksburg registrar, says she’s been contacted “many times” by the Obama campaign’s lawyers. Kevin Griffis, a local campaign spokesman who says that the campaign has not encountered these kinds of barriers anywhere else in the country, has made statements to nearly every college-town newspaper in the state, defending dormitories as “a perfectly acceptable residence to register to vote” and decrying registration barriers as “completely ridiculous.”

Campaign staffers tout Norfolk, for example, with Old Dominion’s 20,000 students, as one spot where their efforts have succeeded. Obama campaign representatives spoke with the registrar, the election board, and even the mayor, finally convincing the registrar to allow registration for all students. But the big state-wide changes needed in Virginia--the kind that would refine the language of the registration laws to exclude any ambiguities--may take a bit longer. Virginia state congressmen have a vested interest in keeping the law vague, since the majority of them are Republicans. William J. Howell, for example, the speaker of the state House and one of Virginia’s most powerful politicians, is a Republican from Fredericksburg. Should large numbers of the 22 percent of Fredericksburg’s population that attends the University of Mary Washington ever decide to support his opponent, he could lose his seat. Civil rights groups as well as state and local officials have been asking the state legislature to clarify registration standards for years, but it has long refused--likely because any such legislation would have to be in line with the Supreme Court’s 1979 decision, thus making student registration far easier--and, in any case, it is on recess until January 2009.

In the absence of state-level movement, federal legislators are finally getting involved, though it’s unclear what effect, if any, a few Congressional Democrats will have on Virginia’s Republican legislators. House members attending the recent hearing on student voting repeatedly expressed outrage over the problems in Virginia; one committee member waved a copy of the recent Times article over his head as he opined against the state’s standards. U.S. Representative Janice Schakowsky of Illinois, also in attendance, used the opportunity to push the Student Voter Act of 2008. The bill would allow colleges to act as voter registration agencies, thus allowing students to bypass county or city registrars, but it has been in committee since July and has only one co-sponsor. With this bill not yet on the table, and only a month left until the election, there is little the Obama campaign can do except work with local registrars and officials, one by one, to secure nearby students’ right to vote. With the polls so close, every college town--and the block of potential student-voters it represents--could be the one to make the difference.

Max Fisher is an Online Intern at The New Republic.

By Max Fisher