Home Is Where The Vote Is

Brent Finnegan -- January 28th, 2009

The issue of where college students can and should vote arose in Harrisonburg last fall, and came up again on Sen. Mark Obenshain’s recent survey: “Do you believe that college students whose primary residence is with parents or guardians out of state are entitled to register to vote in Virginia?”

Now Del. John Cosgrove is attempting to answer that question with a bill in General Assembly. HB 1878 proposes changes to voting procedures in Virginia, specifically:

To establish domicile, a person must live in a particular locality with the intention to remain there for an unlimited time. A place of abode is the physical place where a person dwells. The State Board shall promulgate guidelines to assist general registrars with determining a persons residence.

Emphasis mine.

Waldo Jaquith, creator of Richmond Sunlight, commented on the bill:

Del. Cosgrove is apparently seeking to prohibit students from voting in elections at their university. So a student from Fairfax who enrolls in Virginia Tech and lives there for ten years to get her undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate degree would be prohibited from voting there, prevented from deciding who will represent her on the town council.

It’s unclear to me how such a measure would be enforced. Jeremy poses a new question on his blog today: “how will they possibly establish our intent to remain where we live for an unlimited time?”

52 Responses to “Home Is Where The Vote Is”

  1. Renee says:

    I don’t know why they just can’t enforce the voting so that a person can’t vote in 2 different cities in the same election.

    As long as no one’s double-voting, and they do actually have a residential address in the city they’re voting in, who cares which one they vote in?

    So if a college student voted in their college town, they’d be giving up their vote in their hometown at their “permanent address” – why isn’t that satisfactory?

  2. JGFitzgerald says:

    “College students will take over city council” is a common fear tactic in college towns. They never do, by the way.

    Making this a matter of law is a way to change the subject from attempts to suppress the student vote in the last election. They lost. They might consider blaming it on the failure of their policies instead of on who was allowed to vote.

  3. Dave Briggman says:

    Cosgrove, by the way, attempted to pass a bill similar in appearance to Obenshain’s “show the cops the miscarriage” legislation. Great minds think alike, huh?

  4. Jeremy Aldrich says:

    I’m really baffled by the idea that people who live here at least 3/4 of the year as students at JMU or EMU shouldn’t vote here, but people who live here at most 1/4 of the year and go to college elsewhere should vote here.

    Just a thought – if this type of rule were adopted nationally, would it mean the President, all his appointees, members of Congress and all their staff couldn’t vote in Washington, D.C. since their time in the city is limited? It would also stand to reason they couldn’t vote in their home cities, either, because they don’t dwell there.

  5. Breslau says:

    This legislation is so unfair and unworkable it almost makes my head hurt. Thankfully, it’s pretty much destined to fail like the underwear fine thing did.

  6. Renee says:

    How about make it like the Facebook home network where (as far as I understand it) you can only be in one city/region at a time, and you can only change it after a specified period of time, to prevent constant switching from place to place.

    I won’t take the Facebook metaphor too far, though, or all of us would have to vote in Charlottesville :)

  7. Gene Hart says:

    Off the top of my head, I can think of several reasons this proposal should not pass.

    1. Would it risk disenfranchisement of military members and their families who find themselves stationed in Virginia? While Va. Code Section 24.2-417.1 provides a presumption that such a person “who has established a physical presence and a place of abode in the Commonwealth shall also have established domicile in the Commonwealth[,]” what would happen if that person was asked if they intended to remain in that location for an unlimited period of time? When I was in the Army, I knew that wherever I was stationed that I was going to be leaving that place within (usually) three to five years. So, if a serviceperson is asked and honestly answers “no, I cannot say I intend to live here for an unlimited period of time,” would the presumption have been rebutted and, therefore, be denied the right to vote in Virginia?

    2. A legislator seeking to “fix” should take ownership of the fix. This proposal leaves it up to unelected state officials to promulgate rules to implement the changed statute. What does “unlimited period of time” mean? If its definition is important, the people passing the law should be the ones to define the term.

    3. We are, for better or worse, a mobile population these days. How many people can really say they intend to live anywhere for an unlimited period of time? Even if they think they have such an intention, who gets to determine when you changed that intention or whether you never really had it when you filled out the voter registration form?

  8. Dave Briggman says:

    Jeremy, I don’t think members of Congress, with the exception of the sole “Congressman” DC has, vote in DC…in order to be elected to office, I would imagine that if you do vote, you’d have to vote in your own state.

  9. Jeremy Aldrich says:

    Dave, I know that, for example, Bush voted in Crawford, Texas in 2004…wouldn’t this type of bill prevent him from doing so since he doesn’t dwell there? What is “your own state” when you live there for less time in the year than a vacationer might during a visit?

  10. If we had a trustworthy Registrar you could file your voter registration form, list prior registration address, have it voided and your new registration awarded without bumbling…but you can’t.

    Until we can end voter suppression, the lesson learned is “keep your options open”. You can thank the Republican party (and Mrs. Senator Obenshain) for that sad truth.

  11. cook says:

    The proposed change in the statute, as I read it, only restates existing law and expressly delegates interpretation of existing law to the Board of Elections. The problem with the idea of “domicile” in existing law, strictly read, is that it leaves transient persons (students, individuals between jobs, wanderers) without a place to vote. The General Assembly needs to decide where such persons ought to vote, not punt to the Board of Elections.

  12. zen says:

    “They might consider blaming it on the failure of their policies instead of on who was allowed to vote.” -JGF

    Well said.
    One man gathers, what another man spills.

  13. Andy Perrine says:

    Upon moving to a new town in Virginia, will we have to register our intentions on how long we’ll stay?

    If something unexpected happens such as losing one’s job, will we not be able to move to find work if we’ve not stayed as long as we originally intended?

    If my wife and I have a conversation over dinner about possibly moving to another town once the kids grow up, will I no longer be eligible to vote in my current domicile?

    Cosgrove (R) wants to create legislation that controls not only my actions but intentions, too!? I don’t get it — I thought the Republican party was the one that wanted government out of people’s lives.

  14. JGFitzgerald says:

    Couple moves to town. Plans to stay. They say so on their voter registration forms. She gets a good job offer six months later. They decide to move. Both get charged with perjury, assuming the Registrar hasn’t lost their forms.

  15. Bill says:

    If they live off campus, in property that is taxable real estate, they pay utility bills, and register their vehicle in that locality, then they are a resident of that location and should be allowed to vote. I do believe that they should change their voting precinct or location so not to be allowed to vote in both locations. If they reside in University housing such as a dorm, then I do not believe they should be allowed to vote in that locality. Just because they “shop” here does not or should not imply a right to vote here. I shop in Henrico County, but live in Rockingham County, should I be allowed to vote in both? or even in Henrico? No. People have to make a choice of residence-period, in order to vote.

  16. Jeremy Aldrich says:

    Bill, I’m curious about the distinction in your mind between someone who lives in university housing and someone who does not. Could you elaborate?

    I think the argument about them shopping here has more to do with the objection that they have no stake in the business of the city. I agree that it is among the weaker arguments for that point.

  17. Karl says:

    While I don’t think that out of state/locality students should be able to vote in a local election, I don’t think you can legislate vested interest. Ultimately we would all like to see voters that are both informed and vested in the community, but we don’t get half of that most the time anyway.

    One thing I will never understand is how the state has two distinctions for students. There’s one that determines they are out of state and have to pay a higher tuition, but at the same time they are a resident of the locality they temporarily reside in for voting purposes? I suppose none of you would like to pick up the difference if all those out of state students were granted in state tuition, but you’ll defend their right to vote as a resident of Virginia.

  18. egregory says:

    Under this proposed legislation, I’m not sure WHERE I would be able to vote. I don’t plan to remain indefinitely in Harrisonburg, but have no concrete plans to leave within the next year. My time in Harrisonburg is limited, but where else should I vote? I don’t plan to live in ANY place for an unlimited amount of time.

    The thought-processes behind these proposals baffles me…

  19. linz says:

    It’s a bit of a stretch, but in somewhat related news, CNN has an article up today stating that “Nearly half of all Americans want to live elsewhere.” I knew this was a Generation Y trend, but it might be bigger than that according to this article.

    I think the proposed bill is out of touch with reality for many reasons, many of which have already been stated here, and I think there’s a fine line that’s being crossed in the government having written statements on our residence intentions.

    Lastly, if our city and state are so interested in students’ tax dollars, not allowing them to vote here might be shutting the door on people who, if made to feel welcome, might want to stay. It’s my impression that many college students do stay in their college towns for at least a few years after graduation. It’s an easy way to find an entry level position while you decide what you want to do with your life and/or while you’re waiting on your significant other to graduate.

    I think the stereotypical image of the college student who has everything paid for and is going to move right back in with mommy and daddy after graduation is old-fashioned and representative of a minority of college students today.

  20. Jeremy Aldrich says:

    To me, the instate/out-of-state distinction has to do with tax contributions of their family, which provide a significant source of funding for state schools. I believe the current requirement says you must have continual, non-interrupted domicile in the state for one year before you are eligible for in-state tuition.

    It IS a big mess, and it doesn’t make much sense. But I hope we can agree that everyone who is older than 18 and not a felon should be able to vote, and that it makes good sense for them to vote in the place which is home to them for most of the year.

  21. seth says:

    i know a local family whose daughter is a permanent resident of istanbul, turkey. still votes here though. even in local elections (don’t worry, her folks make sure she knows who to vote for).

    i don’t have a problem with students voting here. i do think it might be wise to establish some basic hoops through which to jump though. it’s probably kind of a whacky (and perhaps entirely implausible) notion, but i remember wondering what would keep me from mobilizing a massive coalition of conservative transients and trying to register and vote in c’ville.

  22. seth says:

    all that to say that when people have the opportunity to take advantage, they frequently do. the system needs to be setup in such a way as to minimize that kind of thing.

  23. JGFitzgerald says:

    OK, let’s go to the sentence completion part of the test. Students should not be allowed to vote where they go to school because [bad thing] will happen. An example of where [bad thing] happened is the following:

    Circle the right answer: People who begin voting in college will be [more, less] likely to vote when they’re older. College voters tend to vote more [R, D], therefore it is in the best interests of the [R, D] party to [let, not let] students vote.

    True or false: Politicians from the [R, D] party have only the best interests of the community in mind in trying to [let, not let] students vote.

  24. linz says:

    The sentence completion method is much safer than opening it up MadLibs style. :)

  25. Renee says:

    In- and out-of-state tuition is another topic that will raise a lot of opinions. My sister up and moved to Florida for grad school, which she was paying for herself, and lived there for almost 3 years. She paid for all of her expenses herself except her cell phone and her health insurance. She paid for housing, tuition, groceries, gas, etc etc.

    Now, the first entire year she was there, she couldn’t get in-state tuition, even though technically her new “permanent residence” was Florida, so therefore she was a full-time in-state resident paying for tuition. Didn’t seem fair to me that 1 out of her 3 years cost a whole lot more, though I can see how it would be difficult to rule otherwise since 1) our family didn’t pay into the FL tax system for years, and 2) how can they determine whether a student is paying with their own earned income or if their parents are supplementing their bank account?

    Should she have been able to vote in Florida? Yes, that is where she lived full-time, and she cast her presidential ballot there last year. Now, she knew she was most likely going to move out of Florida after finishing grad school, so (if this law were passed in FL) would this law have prevented her from voting in-state for the duration of her time there? She wouldn’t have been able to vote in VA because she had moved away, changed her drivers license, etc., but didn’t have an “intention to remain there for an unlimited time”… so would she not legally be able to vote in either place?

    P.S. I also wanted to say I really like the title of this post, Brent!

  26. David Miller says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading the post but besides Bill, we all see this as what it is. It is an attempt to disenfranchise a group of voters more inclined to vote against the current power structure. Any arguments based in reality will be thoroughly enjoyed….and then shot down with the golden rule.

  27. zen says:

    Just curious. Playing by his rules, I wonder when exactly Del. Cosgrove (R) himself would have been able to cast his first ballot? And, in reality, when he did?

  28. Bill says:

    Jeremy, student housing provided for by the university is was built for by public tax dollars. I do not think students that live in that type of housing have to worry about water, sewer, electric, etc. because it is inclusive in the residence fees. Leasing an apartment, a house, or a townhouse requires a more deliberate desire to be invested in the community. The property that they lease is on the tax roles and is subject to local rules and laws, whereas, JMU dorms are non-taxable, public housing units that are set up to be only temporary housing units primarily for seasonal living, usually August-May and not year round like most leases are for students who live off campus. I believe there is a clear distinction between a person who lives in a unit for 9 months out of the year vs one who, though may not live in the rented unit, certainly pays for it for 12 months. I support student registration and voting if they are in fact living “in” the community and not on non-taxable state properties.

  29. JGFitzgerald says:

    Requiring the payment of taxes as a precondition to voting has already been tried. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed that and other Jim Crow voter suppression efforts.

  30. Bill says:

    Fitz, it’s more about making a decision to live in a community for more than the “college year” vs being a year round citizen. The distinction between part-time resident and full time resident has to be the measure for voter registration. No one is saying these kids can’t vote, it simply about where they can vote. The last time I checked, students can still vote back home with an absentee ballot. So no one will be blocked from voting in national elections or for their elective offices where the student claims residency. The law also has been read to mean that the voter must be a domicile resident of the community in order to register to vote in that community. I do not believe that living in a college dorm has met those requirements. I may be wrong, but I don’t think I am.

  31. JGFitzgerald says:

    I may have been misled by the appearance of the word “tax” or its forms four times in an earlier comment.

    There are six basic facets of local government: Utilities; public safety; k-12 education; recreation; streets and transportation; and community development and zoning. Two of those, education and recreation, are unlikely to affect college students living in dorms. The others are.

    Also, the Supreme Court in Symms v. Somedamnbody said they can vote. If that matters.

  32. zen says:

    Clearly this legislation targets college students. But, how are “snow bird” retirees treated in regard to voting? I’m speaking of those people that spend winters down south but otherwise live in the north. Do they have a choice of where they cast their vote depending on where they register? Why should there be more legislation when protocol already exists?

  33. David Miller says:


    Why do wish to restrict voting rights (in any for other than duplicate voting)? What’s the goal?

  34. David Miller says:

    ps, do you think most of these kids have any clue about hometown politics (there are always exceptions, before we digress on the I did when I was that age argument). Wouldn’t their college town be the most likely town to get involved in politics if not disenfranchised from the political process?

  35. Ben says:

    I think these points are obvious and have been clearly made, so let’s take it a step further. The British Parliament announced an intent to have Broadband internet in every home by 2012. Since I can conduct any secure banking transaction over the internet today from home or work, I propose:

    1) We at least try to keep up with the UK for US citizens’ resources.
    2) We use broadband connectivity as a means to ensure each non-disenfranchised voter can vote security exactly once from….any registered location in the world monitored for appropriate voting requirements (privacy issues etc).

    I stated once before when this issue came up that the issue is much broader in a technological society than from which city a vote must be cast. That’s a very temporary (but relevant) topic.

  36. seth says:

    if i understand you correctly, i don’t think so. it matters where votes are cast. this is why politicians work so hard to draw district lines that are favorable to their party. in the theoretical absence of voting districts, the electoral college, etc, what you say may make sense, but i think we’d probably agree that the basic structure of how our votes are counted will remain the same. that being said, it will always matter where a vote is cast.

  37. David Miller says:

    Not only that but I will never accept an electronic system since it cannobt be monitored directly by humans and in person(as flawed as they can be, they are much harder to sway in mass than elec means). I think anyone who has done their research on elec voting will concur.

  38. Ben says:

    Seth, your comments relate to where a voter belongs, rather than where they physically cast a vote, and Dave, my comment of “monitored for appropriate voting requirements” was meant to address your concerns. I think anonymous and unrestricted voting without outside influence is going to always be an issue, and a real one, but can see that day that people can physically cast their votes for their stinkin’ cellphone/computer type devices. I understand the current issues with electronic voting; I just think they’re temporary.

  39. Bill says:

    Fitz, you are correct- Reynolds v Simms, I stand corrected. Then let ’em register or change their registration and vote where they “live”. But they must choose ONE place to vote and it should be for the elections in that year. Some localities still have two different voting dates- municipal in May and general in November. Not a problem in the ‘Burg, but might be in some other communities.

  40. David Miller says:

    Sure, but that is not what is being proposed.

  41. Sam Hottinger says:

    Many states require you to register your vehicles in their state within a certain amount of time after moving there. I know that Michigan had a less than a month when I lived there. You also had to apply for a Michigan Drivers License and take their written test. Once you had done this you were then in the system as a taxpayer. If someone wants to vote here, they should subject themselves to the rules and regulations of the lawmakers they are voting for. It would seem to me that a simple solution would be to say, “if you want to show that you have an actual intent to live here you change your drivers license and registration to this state.” This would subject them to the same rules as the people in the area they were voting in. Most of the people that I knew in the Military picked one area of residence and voted absentee in that area. Florida was very popular because they had no personal income tax.

  42. zen says:

    Sam, That seems to create an obligation to own a car, or at least invest in a driver’s license. Some people may not drive, but should still be able to vote.

  43. Karl says:

    I’ll play Joe’s mad libs. The bad thing…no Charlie Chenault on council. You have to admit that voters who only had one letter in mind kept Charlie from staying on council. Seemed after the election the informed and vested Harrisonburg citizens that frequent this board knew that losing Charlie was a bad thing. Seems uninformed, non vested “residents” did not.

    With that said, nothing has really changed. Longtime residents of the area have proven time and time again in previous elections that they could not see beyond party lines either. I thought Lowell was head and shoulders the better candidate the first time he ran and then ran the better campaign the second time around.

  44. T says:

    If it passes, then students should then be able to flash their school ID and then be exempt from local food/gas/ciggy/abc taxes –“no taxation without representation.”

  45. JGFitzgerald says:

    Not sure where you’re getting your numbers, Karl, but in the only close competition in the council race, Charlie won two precincts, Dave Wiens won three. I know that idea that Charlie lost because of student votes is popular but it’s factually wrong. Dave won because of his platform, his hard work, and the fact that in the end he wanted it more than Charlie. Also, he got more votes.

    My question was intended to be whether anyone had proven that illegal activity had affected the outcome of an election, not whether some votes should be suppressed in order to get the “right” outcome.

  46. Jeremy Aldrich says:

    The “party line” argument for the local council races is also suspect in my mind since their party affiliation wasn’t listed on the ballot. I know it’s a sad thought, but how likely is it that some people voted for Baugh, Degner, and Wiens simply because they were the first three names on the ballot?

  47. Jeremy Aldrich says:

    Here’s some research saying that candidates listed first have a 2.33% advantage. Wiens garnered 102.7% of the votes that Chenault did. Maybe we should argue for rotating the name order on the ballots to mitigate that effect.

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