Roanoke Times Editorial: Students are voters too
The General Assembly leaves murky student voter registration laws on the books despite problems.
Montgomery County Registrar Randy Wertz can be forgiven for warning Virginia Tech students that bad things could happen to them if they register to vote. His dire predictions might have been a bit overblown, but blame state lawmakers. Year after year, they refuse to clarify obscure voter registration laws that leave many students in limbo and make registrars' jobs more difficult.
Wertz warned in a recent press release that if students register to vote where they go to school instead of where they come from, they could lose their dependent status. Among other problems, that could mess up their parents' taxes and end their health insurance.
Or not. After complaints from student voting organizers, Wertz's office toned down its rhetoric.
In Virginia, students actually have some leeway on where they vote, so long as they have a registrar who welcomes them.
Historically, Wertz and his predecessors have been welcoming, in part thanks to a legal settlement with a Tech student who fought for the right to register more than 20 years ago.
Such legal challenges still crop up now and then, though. For example, William and Mary students fought for the right to register just a couple of years ago.
State laws are unclear about where students may register to vote, and the ambiguities leave considerable discretion in the hands of registrars. Some, like Radford Registrar Tracy Howard, go out of their way to look for reasons to disqualify student voters. Others, like the registrar in Charlottesville, welcome young people to the voter rolls.
Voter registration rules should not vary across localities, but lawmakers refuse to set clear standards.
Students spend four years or more living in places like Blacksburg, Radford and Salem. They are members of the community and have a stake in its future. Voting is a right that comes along with that.
This year, students will face special scrutiny. For the first time in decades, the commonwealth is in play for the presidential election, and young voters skew toward the Democratic nominee. If they register and turn out -- either where they go to school or by absentee ballot -- they could push the state blue.
Or they might stay home, as people their age typically do. Either way, the choice should be theirs, not arbitrarily made by local registrars.