BOISE – Idaho ranks as one of the most restrictive states in the nation for college students looking to register and vote at their college addresses, according to a national study.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School surveyed all states’ election laws and rules for student voters and found that only Idaho and Tennessee require students to have plans to stay in the state permanently, aside from school.
“Frankly, I question the constitutionality of this rule,” said Wendy Weiser, director of voting rights and elections at the Brennan Center. “Many students are in a situation where they don’t know where they’re going after school – for all intents and purposes, this is their only residence.”
She added, “To say that you actually have to have a definite plan to remain in Idaho means that all the people who haven’t determined what their future plans are … are for all intents and purposes disenfranchised.”
The practice is different in Washington. “Basically, the attorney general’s office has told us that students have the ability to either register at their home address and get an absentee ballot, or they can register on their campus by using their campus address if that’s where their residence is,” said Lindsay Pryor, voter outreach coordinator for the Elections Division of the Washington secretary of state’s office.
That’s how it works across the country, according to the Brennan Center, and a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1970s upheld the rights of college students to be treated no differently from any other voters. In one key case from 1979, a mostly white Texas county required students at a mostly black state college to fill out special questionnaires in order to register, querying them about their plans after graduation, their home address listed with the college, and more; the court put a stop to that.
“Idaho does not do that,” said Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. “The Idaho law on residency is neutral – it’s anybody, a student, a non-student.”
But, he said, “Residency is unfortunately not necessarily black and white. There are limits, and we stand by what we have put out in writing on how you define residency.”
On the Idaho secretary of state’s Web site, the page on “Students and Voting Residency” notes, “As a student, you should not be registering and voting in your college locale simply because you failed to register and vote at your true domicile. Registering to vote is a serious matter which, if abused, can subject you to criminal penalties.”
Weiser said, “I think that the threat of criminal penalties is certainly intimidating. This is something that we’re actually seeing in other parts of the country as well, when there are efforts to dissuade students from registering and voting in their school communities.”
The issue has come up around the country this year, including a controversy in Virginia when students at Virginia Tech were warned by a county registrar of elections that they could lose financial aid or ability to be claimed as dependents on their parents’ tax returns if they registered to vote at their school addresses. Neither is true.
Where a person registers to vote can have consequences, however. Weiser said some states, such as Indiana, require those who register to vote in the state to obtain an in-state driver’s license if they drive there. That’s not required in Idaho, but Washington does require state residents to obtain an in-state driver’s license within 30 days, and voter registration is considered in that residency question.
Ysursa noted that several years ago, a University of Idaho student from Alaska registered to vote in Moscow – and lost her Alaska permanent fund payment, an annual payment to all Alaska residents from oil and gas development in the state that averages about $1,500 a year. Under Alaska law, full-time students attending school out of state still get the payments – unless they take action to declare their intent to establish residency elsewhere.
“There are issues,” Ysursa said. “Registration is a serious matter, and voting is a serious matter. They need to know all the rules about it – everyone does, not just students.”
Victoria Short, deputy clerk for elections in Latah County, where the University of Idaho is located, said the Alaska incident prompted the clerk’s office there to double-check all registration changes that come in from former Alaska residents. “We have caught some,” she said. “Some, they knew about it, and they thanked us for checking.”
She said she also warns students that if they register in Idaho, they could be called for jury duty in Idaho.
“All we do, when they come to register to vote – and we have the voter registration drive people say the same thing to them – do you consider Latah County to be your permanent address? If you do, then register to vote here,” Short said. “If you don’t, then you need to get an absentee ballot from your home state or your home county or whatever.”
She noted, “Then they decide. We can’t tell them, ‘No, you can’t register here because you don’t consider Latah County to be your permanent address.’ We present the facts, and they make their own decisions.”
Ysursa said he doesn’t think Idaho is a difficult state for student voters, and he seldom hears complaints. “There are some students who certainly have a domicile at the college and they can register there if they really do,” he said. “But they have to make some serious decisions. It’s not where you are on a certain day – it’s more than that.”
He added, “Is there 100 percent clarity on residency law? No. There are factors that you have to figure in, but there are factors for everyone, not just for students.”
Big voter registration drives are under way in Moscow, Short said, including “dorm storms.” She said, “I have handed out over 250 voter registration cards for registration drives right now as it stands. I’m expecting to probably give out more because they’re going to try and get them in before the deadline Oct. 10.”
Idaho also allows same-day registration at the polls for voters who don’t register in advance; that feature earned the state top marks for voting accessibility from the Brennan Center, the same group that criticized the state’s residency rules.
Oddly, Washington’s and Idaho’s laws are not much different. Their constitutional provisions regarding residency for voting are nearly identical, each providing that students neither gain nor lose residency by going to school.
“I think the law is susceptible to a more voter-friendly interpretation,” Weiser said, “but it’s a very strict interpretation that’s described on the secretary of state’s Web site.”
Pryor said Washington leaves the decision of where a student’s permanent address is up to the student, just as someone with two residences would make that same choice.
“Is it where you spend nine months out of the year, or is it where you send the bills?” she said. “Many students feel that they are more connected to their community where they go to school nine months out of the year, rather than where they go home for three months.”