Changing Residency Standards Attack Student Voters

04/09/2015 05:25 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

A new effort on voter suppression has been seen in recent months: attacks on student voting by making it harder to determine residency for voting purposes. Proposed legislation in Ohio, New Hampshire, and Indiana that would limit student voting rights through amended residency standards has met varied results.

At the center of the issue is the definition of residency for voter registration purposes. It seems straightforward that a person who lives in a state and considers that place her residence should be able to register to vote there. The reality, however, can be more complicated. Most states have residency standards for voting that often differ from residency for other purposes within the state, such as paying taxes or registering a motor vehicle. Whatever residency standards exist for these latter obligations, most states allow students, people working in temporary jobs, and active duty military stationed in the state to vote if they have a physical presence in the state, a place they call home, in which they have a present intent to stay. Some states, however, in an effort to discourage young voters, are trying to change these generally accepted standards.

In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in Symm v. United States, students' rights to register to vote at their previous home address or at their college address. Essentially, the law cannot constitutionally add burdens to voter registration or voting simply because someone is a student.

This anti-student voter effort is not new and the motives are more than suspect. The recent attacks on the residency of students in several states are evidence this fight against students is evolving and must be addressed.

In late March, state senators in Ohio added a last-minute provision to the state's 522-page transportation budget bill which would have required those registering to vote in Ohio to obtain a state driver's license and vehicle registration within 30 days of their voter registration. Though on its face it seems reasonable that those living and driving in the state should be required to obtain vehicle registration and licenses in Ohio, this amendment mandated a link between voter registration addresses and motor vehicle addresses in a way few other states do. This provision would have affected several other categories of voters, including Ohio residents who spend the winters at a second home and military personnel stationed in the state, but the real impact would be on the more than 116,000 out-of-state students attending college in the Buckeye State.

This effort may have flown under the radar if it weren't for another effort two years ago when the legislature slipped a provision designed to attack out-of-state students' voting rights into a massive budget bill. This encore performance generated editorials from state newspapers calling upon Governor Kasich to line-item veto this requirement. After a week of negative fallout from the legislature's maneuver, the Governor vetoed the provision.

New Hampshire has a similar history of attacks on student voting and the state legislature renewed its efforts this year. Legislation was proposed in January, HB 112, which would make a person's residence for voting purposes the same as their residence for motor vehicle purposes. In New Hampshire, the state constitution has carved out a separate "domicile" standard for voting purposes that significantly differs from the state's residency standard for other purposes. HB 112 is not the state legislature's first attempt to do away with the state's domicile standard, which has been codified and upheld by the state's courts. The State House recently voted to seek an advisory opinion from the state Supreme Court on HB 112, so its fate remains to be seen.

In a related, but unique scenario, the Indiana General Assembly is considering an omnibus elections bill that includes a provision to amend the residency chapter of its elections code. In an effort to clarify college students' rights to vote at their parents' home address or their college address, the proposed amendments single out college students as a class of voters, and add a "permanent intent" standard that requires students, and only students, to contemplate where they will live in years to come. Though the changes in Indiana are small, they add a layer of confusion to an already complex residency statute, which has 20 subsections detailing the residency requirements for voting purposes. The Indiana House Elections and Apportionment Committee will consider amendments to this language, hopefully to make the standard "present intent" or keep the current law at a hearing on April 8.

As far as voter registration residency requirements go, it should be simple: every American is entitled to vote in the place where she lives and she considers is her current home. This trend of tough residency standards aimed at limiting student voting rights cannot stand. Instead, we should encourage more participation in our democracy from younger people.

Archita Taylor, Staff Attorney at the Fair Elections Legal Network, contributed to this article.