Fair warning, or voter suppression?

Brent Finnegan -- September 3rd, 2008

On August 15th, I started hearing reports that the Harrisonburg Registrar’s Office was indirectly discouraging new voters — particularly college students — from registering to vote in the city. The allegations were that the registrar was warning younger registrants that registering in their college town could possibly have a negative impact on their scholarships and tax status.

Now I read in newrivervalley.com and Inside Higher Ed that this “warning” was being given to Virginia Tech students in Montgomery County.

A Montgomery County official’s attempt to outline state elections law for thousands of Virginia Tech students this week prompted a swift reaction from Barack Obama campaign officials, who worried the statement could have a “chilling effect” on a massive registration effort now under way.

Montgomery County Registrar Randy Wertz said he wrote the news release, distributed through the county’s Web site, amid concerns that the hundreds of Tech students registering to vote using their Blacksburg addresses would essentially change their permanent address. That, he wrote, could affect students’ scholarships or tax filings and would obligate them to change car registrations and their driver’s license to their permanent address.

But Obama campaign officials said they had never heard of students’ dependency status on their parents’ tax forms affected by their voter registration and added that other laws the release cited are rarely enforced or subject to interpretation. Wertz issued a second statement two days later, saying the county cannot give out tax advice.

Selected text from that memo is included in the Inside Higher Ed article. The implication is that the registrar was trying to discourage students from registering there, because they were likely to vote for Obama, and skew the region more blue.

Although the Voting Rights Act is pretty clear about giving different treatment to different groups of registrants, this “free legal advice” seems to be a matter of interpretation among Virginia registrars. The registrar in Charlottesville doesn’t feel the need:

Charlottesville Registrar Sheri Iachetta said she faces the same issues with University of Virginia students as registrars in Radford and Montgomery County. But the question of whether students can consider addresses at college permanent is one she said she leaves up to the voter.

“I’m not going to question anyone. They have to sign under penalty of perjury that the information they gave me was correct,” Iachetta said. “They’re 18 years of age and they’re away from home, and they can make their own decision.”

Debbie Logan took over the position of Harrisonburg Registrar in 2006. Logan said that the Harrisonburg office was informing students that registering locally could possibly affect certain scholarships, but that they’ve stopped as of last week. According to her, she wanted to avoid angry phone calls from parents regarding the loss of their child’s scholarship. She said that what they were doing was previously okay with the SBE, but that they were told last week by the SBE to stop.

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