WASHINGTON -- Indiana lawmakers are debating Wednesday on legislation that would prohibit students who pay out-of-state tuition from voting in the Hoosier State -- and that may be unconstitutional.
The bill, introduced by state Rep. Peggy Mayfield (R-Martinsville), would amend the Indiana Code regarding elections to specify that "a person does not gain residency in a precinct into which the person moves for educational purposes if the person pays a nonresident tuition rate."
Mayfield defended the bill to The Indianapolis Star, saying that out-of-state students can still vote at their out-of-state address.
But Lee Rowland, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, argues that such measures are constitutionally invalid and contradict decades of legal precedent.
Specifically, Rowland said that to obtain in-state tuition -- and, thus, the right to vote under Mayfield's bill -- a student must first be a resident of Indiana for a full year. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states cannot set such an extended time barrier to voting, she said.
"The courts, including the Supreme Court in a case from the 1970s, have said very plainly that states cannot create restrictions on obtaining voting residency that are longer than 30 days," Rowland told The Huffington Post. "So 365 days is pretty clearly in violation of that constitutional law."
A similar state law was blocked last September in New Hampshire, where Superior Court Judge John Lewis ruled that students paying out-of-state tuition were entitled to vote in New Hampshire.
Unlike the Indiana bill, the New Hampshire law made no direct reference to nonresident students. Instead, it required voters to sign a form declaring that New Hampshire was their "domicile" and that they were "subject to the laws of the State of New Hampshire which apply to all residents" -- which, among other things, required drivers to register their vehicles and obtain a driver's license in New Hampshire within 60 days of becoming a resident.
In response to the judge's ruling, New Hampshire state House Speaker William O’Brien (R-Mont Vernon) released a joint statement with Senate President Peter Bragdon (R-Milford), calling the ruling "judicial activism of the worst sort."
Rowland, however, said the New Hampshire court got it right because such laws unconstitutionally restrict a certain class of voters.
"Federal and state courts have been very clear that when you single out a class of people to treat differently for the purposes of voting and voting registration, you are on very thin ice constitutionally," said Rowland. "[The Indiana] law is no different -- it clearly singles out students and creates a different standard for them to obtain residence after moving into the state, and that violates our principles of equal protection."
In 2011, then-Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster also took on the issue of student voting rights. However, he accused students who both pay out-of-state tuition rates and vote in Maine as perpetrators of voting fraud.
This debate over voting residency requirements has been taken up in other state legislatures as well, although Indiana may be the first to explicitly exclude students from out of state in its bill.
According to The Indianapolis Star, the bill could affect tens of thousands of students in Indiana -- including many attending Purdue, where 42 percent of all students pay the higher nonresident tuition rate.