By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director

In the United States, turning 18 years old is a rite of passage that comes with certain rights, privileges and responsibilities.  And since the passage of the 26th Amendment to the Constitution in 1971, it is the age at which we have the right to vote.  For millions of teenagers, it is also the age at which they will go off to college for the first time.
So for those students who would like to vote in their first (presidential) election and are away at college on November 6, the question is where will they register to vote?
During the 2008 presidential election, it was unclear whether Virginia’s registrars would allow college students to register to vote in the locality in which they attended school.  In fact, prior to 2009, registrars across the state were inconsistent in their interpretation of the law regarding student registrations.
According to the Virginia Code, persons are eligible to register to vote if they are residents of the state, U.S. citizens, 18 years old*, not registered and planning to vote in another state, not currently declared mentally incompetent by a court of law, and have had their voting rights restored if they have been convicted of a felony.
The law seems simple enough to understand, however the interpretation of “resident” is the major sticking point for registrars considering applications from students.  To be a resident, the code requires both “domicile” and “abode.”  “To establish domicile, a person must live in a particular locality with the intention to remain.  A place of abode is the physical place where a person dwells.”
In 2000, the ACLU of Virginia criticized the Fredericksburg registrar for refusing to allow students with dormitory addresses to register for local elections.  In 2004, we represented several William and Mary students whose applications to register to vote had been rejected because they were not believed to be “domiciled” since they might leave Williamsburg after graduation.
However, thanks to a 2009 State Board of Elections policy and subsequent regulation, the two main causes for rejected applications to register to vote have been eliminated.  First, registrars may not turn down students simply because they provide a dormitory address as their residence.  Second, students can meet the ‘domiciled’ requirement even if they may be moving out of the locality after graduation.
While this is welcome news for any student wishing to register to vote in the Virginia locality where they attend college or university, the State Board of Elections injected some confusion into the application process by including on their website a questionnaire to guide students.  Although filling out the questionnaire is not required to register to vote, we believe students who use the answers to guide their decision about where to register will be wrongly dissuaded from choosing to register to vote where they attend school.
To help students better understand their right to register to vote, we’ve created a Know Your Rights flyer that explains more clearly the options available.  In the coming weeks, we’ll be sending it out to student organizations in all the Virginia colleges and universities.  If you or someone you know is one of the nearly half-million students enrolled in a Virginia institution of higher education and has trouble registering to vote using a college address, contact us at intake[at]acluva.org.
*In Virginia, you can also register to vote during the six months leading up to your 18th birthday. In order to vote in the 2012 election, you must turn 18 by Election Day. 

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