Registrar of Montgomery County, Virginia Issues 'Unsubstantiated' and 'Chilling' Warning to College Students

On August 25, Randy Wertz, the registrar of Montgomery County (home to Virginia Tech University) sent out a press release regarding the proper procedure for college students in Virginia who have registered or are planning to register to vote.

The press release reads in part:

"The Code of Virginia states that a student must declare a legal residence in order to register. A legal residence can be either a student's permanent address from home or their current college residence. By making Montgomery County your permanent residence, you have declared your independence from your parents and can no longer be claimed as a dependent on their income tax filings -- check with your tax professional. If you have a scholarship attached to your former residence, you could lose this funding. And, if you change your registration to Montgomery County, Virginia Code requires you to change your driver's license and car registration to your present address within 30 days."

Sujatha Jahagirdar, program director for the Student Public Interest Research Group's nonpartisan New Voters Project, said, "For a county registrar to issue what really are in our experience unsubstantiated warnings for a particular demographic is alarming. It's upsetting that this is coming up in Virginia. But it's even more upsetting that the ability of young people to vote is questioned in many other states too."

Is it possible that Montgomery County is trying to suppress and disenfranchise voters, especially college students who are, at least in this election cycle, largely supporting the Democratic presidential candidate?

Considering Virginia's recent history of suppressing the voters, we'd say it is very possible.

Wertz claims that the press release was only to inform students of the issues they need to consider before registering to vote with their college address as their residence of record. As quoted in an article from Inside Higher Ed, Wertz said:

"What's happening is they're [voter registration drives sponsored by candidates, mostly the Obama campaign] going out across campus over here and just getting people to sign the registration forms left and right and not telling them issues to consider, or telling them the incorrect information. Before they make the decision to register with us, they need to check with the accountant who does the taxes. They need to check if they're on their parents' health insurance. By being at a separate permanent address, does that affect their insurance?

"I was just trying to inform them of things to consider, and then once they've made an informed decision and decide to come with us, we welcome them."

But says Jahagirdar, "In 25 years of registering young voters around the country, none of the staff has ever heard of a single incident where a student has lost their tax status or their scholarship because of where they've registered to vote."

And the Obama campaign, which has been very busy registering voters on Virginia Tech's campus, labeled Wertz's information "erroneous." Regarding the issue of federal tax code, there is, according to Kevin Griffis, an Obama campaign spokesman, an exemption in the U.S. tax code allowing dependents to live away from home while attending school.

As far as the health insurance goes, Griffis said that when Obama campaign called the "10 top health insurance companies, none indicated that registering to vote at a college address would be grounds for dismissing students from coverage, 'and in fact some of them laughed at us.'"

In Wertz's defense, Griffis said that when they contacted Wertz and expressed their concern that his memo might have a chilling effect on registration and voter turnout among Montgomery County's college students, Wertz was "responsive, concerned about the students and making sure they're able to exercise their right to vote."

And in fact Wertz issued a "revision" two days later. That memo [one page PDF] took a neutral stance on the issues of (among other things) tax exemption status, health insurance, auto insurance, and scholarship eligibility that students need to consider before registering to vote. But the language of the revision is from Virginia State Board of Elections website. This page is in the form of questions that students should ask themselves before registering to vote at their college addresses, and does nothing to assure students that they do, in fact, have the right to register and vote in the precinct in which they are living and that by doing so they won't lose a scholarship or their health insurance or hurt their parents' tax situation.

Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said, "If you were to look at this [the info from the Virginia BOE] as a student, the suggestion that the State Board of Elections is giving you is, 'You probably should not register to vote here. Don't register to vote here.' We think that's the wrong message to be sending."

We believe that is precisely the message Montgomery County is trying to send.

An August 4, 2008 editorial from the Washington Post entitled "Fear Mongers -- Virginia's GOP tries to scare new voters away from the polls" and this report about the FBI investigating voter intimidation in Virginia are both indications that the job of preventing voter disenfranchisement is far, far from over.

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