Student Assembly Sen. Brett Phillips is puzzled. In Williamsburg, a city with strong historical ties to the start of American democracy, students lack a guaranteed right to register to vote.
p. Phillips, a junior, and Ross Grogg, a sophomore, traveled to Richmond Feb. 1 to lobby for House Bill 3200, sponsored by Delegate Melanie Rapp (R-96th District), which would have ensured Virginia students the right to register to vote in the locality of their colleges by allowing them to choose where they are domiciled. It was tabled until next year’s session by a subcommittee within the Privileges and Elections committee.
Now Phillips and other students who worked on behalf of the bill are considering legal action against the state.
p. “After two-and-a-half years of trying to be diplomatic and trying to appeal to the conscience of those in power, this may be an issue that needs to be decided in the courts,” Phillips said, adding that his first priority was to continue working on legislation.
p. “They didn’t kill it — they gave us an opportunity [to present the bill in next year’s session], and we’re going to take that opportunity.”
p. The potential lawsuit would likely challenge the current policy of local general voter registrars setting standards for student registration, a system College President Gene Nichol has repeatedly called unconstitutional because different localities use different criteria.
p. Recently, Williamsburg General Voter Registrar Dave Andrews altered his policy to allow students with Williamsburg driver’s licenses to register.
p. Despite the change, Phillips feels that legislation is necessary because inequality persists across the state. According to a March 28, 2006 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, students at the University of Virginia who apply to vote are almost always approved, while students at the University of Mary Washington are almost always denied.
p. Last year at the College, several SA senators teamed with the executive department of Public Affairs to draft legislation to standardize student voting in Virginia. Secretary of Public Affairs junior Seth Levey contacted student governments at other Virginia schools and encouraged them to endorse the HB 3200. Currently, 11 student governments have passed resolutions imploring the General Assembly to pass the bill.
p. “We’ve really been appealing to students throughout the commonwealth,” Levey said. “We had conversations with different students and got their take … and pretty much everyone was in agreement that there should be a standard code.”
p. In an unprecedented move, the bill won support from the College Republican Federation of Virginia and the Virginia Young Democrats. Leaders of both organizations co-wrote a Feb. 1 letter calling on General Assembly delegates to support the bill.
p. “Never before in our decades of coexistence have the Executive Boards of both … [the CRFV and the VAYD] eschewed partisan politics and worked together toward a common cause,” the letter reads. “That time is now.”
p. Some members of the Williamsburg community feel that because students reside in the city temporarily and don’t experience the long-term affects of policy, they should vote elsewhere. After a debate Oct. 4, 2006, U.S. Representative Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.) told The Flat Hat that although she has no stance on student voting, she does not understand why students are not content to vote absentee in their hometowns.
p. “The big concern [of Williamsburg residents] is that we’ll take over the town,” Phillips said. “But that’s not our agenda. We just want an equal voice with the rest of the city.”
p. In the subcommittee hearing Feb. 2, an early motion to send the bill to the full committee failed, leading to discussion of whether it should include out-of-state students. According to Phillips, Delegate Rapp believes the bill should affect all full-time students to avoid discriminating. Several legislators, however, argued that allowing out-of-state students to register to vote in Virginia could lead to a dispute over whether they should pay out-of-state tuition.
p. Eventually, legislators decided to table the bill until next session.
p. “The thing I struggle with is this is Williamsburg, Virginia, the birthplace of democracy, and we have trouble voting,” Phillips said. “It’s very difficult to get legislation passed in the General Assembly anyway — 80 percent of all bills fail. The fact that this bill didn’t fail, that it was tabled … was not a win, but it was not a loss.”