Election officials telling college students they can't vote

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 24, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Colorado Democrats accused a Republican county clerk Wednesday of falsely informing Colorado College that students from outside the state could not register to vote if their parents claimed them as a dependent on their tax returns.

At a news conference in Colorado Springs, Democrats also criticized Robert Balink, the El Paso County clerk and recorder, who was a delegate to the Republican National Convention, for taking other steps they said would dampen voting by college students, who are expected to heavily favor Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

"When election officials spread false information about who is eligible to vote and remove, not add, polling places, we need to be concerned that eligible voters will be denied their right to vote," said Pat Waak, chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party.

Balink issued a statement saying his office had misinterpreted state law and “mistakenly published information that was incorrect.”

Balink's actions are the latest of several instances in which local election officials, including some in Virginia and South Carolina, have discouraged college students from voting in a year in which legions of students have thrown their energy behind Obama.

Discovery of these restrictions comes as Democrats have increasingly accused Republicans of using an array of tactics to suppress the Democratic voter turnout in the November election.

Liz Olson, the elections manager in Colorado's El Paso County, said that the office “takes full responsibility for what’s in that document. Nobody told us to put anything in there.”

Martha Tierney, an attorney for the Colorado Democratic Party, said she obtained emails showing that Balink's office sent a misleading flier to the Colorado College president's office to provide students with voter-registration information and urged its circulation on campus.

The flier stated: "What this means is that if your parents still claim you on their income tax returns, and they file that return in a state other than Colorado, you are not eligible to register to vote or vote in Colorado."

Voter residency requirements vary from state to state, but must meet the guarantees of the U.S. Constitution, said Jon Greenbaum, a voting rights expert with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Greenbaum said that what states and counties can’t do is adopt rules that treat one group of voters differently than others.

Greenbaum noted that Virginia’s elections board recently revised language on its Internet site that discouraged students from registering after reports of a similar episode at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Va. The New York Times reported Sept. 8 that a local registrar had issued two releases that incorrectly suggested dire consequences for the university’s students who registered to vote there, including the possibility they no longer could be claimed as dependents on their parents' tax returns.

Sujatha Jahagirdar, program director of the Student Public Interest Research Group’s New Voters Project in Washington, said she encountered similar problems when she posed as a college freshman last week and called registrar’s offices in Greenville County, S.C., home to Furman University, and York County, S.C., where Winthrop University is located.

Jahagirdar said a Greenville official asked if her parents listed her as a dependent, and when she replied in the affirmative, told her: “You should vote where your parents live.” She said a York County representative asked if she was in town for school, and when she said yes, stated flatly: “You can’t vote here.”

A caller on Wednesday got similar responses.

Told of the information imparted by his staff, Conway Belangia, Greenville County’s director of registration and elections, said that “if a staff person made a statement like that, it was an error.”

A York County official didn’t respond to calls for comment.

Belangia said, however, that if a student lives in a dormitory, he must respond to a series of questions laid out in a 1974 federal court order covering voting registration in the county. He said students must demonstrate their “intent to claim this locale as their home when they finish school.”

Jahagirdar called the counties’ policies “intimidating” and said they “send a message that young voters are not welcome in our democracy” just when they’re first enjoying the right to vote.

The flap over students’ voting rights comes after Democrats last week filed a lawsuit in Michigan, seeking a court order barring Republicans from using lists of people facing mortgage foreclosure proceedings as a basis for challenging their voting eligibility. Michigan Republicans denied using foreclosure lists to cast doubt about voters' qualifications.

And in Ohio, a pivotal state that was mired in allegations of voting irregularities in the 2004 presidential election, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner on Wednesday advised county election boards that foreclosure lists should not be considered proof that voters have changed residences.

"Ohioans faced with the pain and turmoil of a home foreclosure should not be targeted by the forces of disenfranchisement on Election Day," Brunner said.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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