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Live Free or Die... But You Can't Vote

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The Dartmouth College Republicans and the Dartmouth College Democrats have teamed up to fight a New Hampshire bill that seeks to disenfranchise students who attend college outside of their hometown. The bill, sponsored by Gregory Sorg (R-Grafton) specifically prohibits students attending "institutions of higher learning" from acquiring domicile for voting purposes in their college community unless they lived there prior to matriculating.

The new speaker of the House, William O'Brien (R-Mont Vernon) made public comments supporting the bill. He explained that he does not think the constitution allows for anyone to have "instantaneous" residence in the state or a particular community. He continued, "That's what kids do. They don't have life experience and they just vote their feelings. And they've taken away the town's ability to govern themselves. It's not fair."

Thus, for example, a student who moves from Manchester (or another state) to Durham to attend the University of New Hampshire will not have the option of voting as a resident of Durham, regardless of the student's intentions about where he or she might live in the future. The student's only option would be to return to Manchester (or the home state) to vote, or to vote there by absentee ballot. The student could live (and work) in the community, pay local taxes, support local businesses, and become involved in any number of ways, but never be allowed a voice in community concerns. To ban college students (who usually live in their college communities for four years or more) from voting is simply ridiculous.

This is not the first time student voters have come under attack. The issue, however, was resolved by the federal courts more than 30 years ago. In 1979, the Supreme Court upheld without comment a Texas district court holding that students must receive the same presumption of residency as other citizens.

In other words, it is unconstitutional to deny someone the right to vote based solely on his or her status as a student.

What's more, as early as 1972, the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire ruled that a student (or anyone) can claim residency for voting purposes even if he or she intends to leave in the future. In that case, after a student at Dartmouth College told elections officials he intended to leave Hanover when he finished school, they denied his voter registration because New Hampshire's traditional test for residency required an intention to stay in the community permanently or indefinitely. Recognizing that, "[i]n this day of widespread planning for change of scene and occupation," the state could not justify a permanent residency requirement, the U.S. District Court held New Hampshire's test unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment.

So why, in 2011, would New Hampshire legislators find it pressing to restrict the voting rights of students, ignoring established constitutional principles in the process? Well, for one, it's a partisan thing. House Speaker William O'Brien recently remarked to residents that college students are "basically doing what I did when I was a kid and foolish, and voting as a liberal." Fortunately, it doesn't take an ideological rival to see the injustice in this approach; as Dartmouth College Republicans President recently noted, "Whether every college student is liberal or every college student is conservative, every vote gets to count, and you can't change that."

College students can be as much a part of the community in which they live as any other resident. In addition, they bring business to the community, pay taxes, and are subject to its rules and regulations. Students may or may not have ideas about where they would like to live after graduating from college, but if they currently consider their college town their home, students have a right to have their voice heard along with every other resident.

For more information about student voting, please visit the Fair Elections Legal Network.