Disenfranchisement dilemma

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September 4, 2007

10:32 AM

It is no secret that Thomas Jefferson once walked our halls as a student not unlike you and me. As we all know, he went on to fight against oppressive government for what he saw as the “inalienable right” to vote — for democracy.

p. That was over 200 years ago. In 2004, history repeated itself: the Williamsburg city government began to block students of the College from voting in Williamsburg elections. Oppression returned to government. The inalienable rights were alienated.

p. Before 2004, any student of the College could register to vote in Williamsburg elections. This is the norm for Virginia college towns, and it is easy to see why. As College President Gene Nichol wrote in a March 2006 e-mail to students, “This community will be your home for four years or more. It is your present center of focus and engagement … You are full members of this community — entitled to equal rights of political participation.”

p. It began with the city’s voter registrar requiring students to fill out a long and complicated questionnaire to register. The results spoke plainly to the new policy’s purpose: fewer than 15 students gained the right to vote out of hundreds of applicants. But our students, as Jefferson’s record will attest, are tenacious when it comes to securing our right to representation, and we did not give up.

p. Students have been trying ever since to understand the complex, ever-shifting rules for voting in Williamsburg. But city officials have been just as dedicated to keeping us disenfranchised. Every time students make sense of the requirements for registering, those requirements are changed. They were changed, in fact, 10 times in a single year. Students are unable to keep up.

p. Students have been questioned about whether they are financially dependent on their parents, where they go to practice religious worship and what address they have on their checks.

p. One student was rejected because his cellular phone did not have a local area code. Another was quizzed on the names of the members of the City Council in an act eerily reminiscent of the literacy tests once used to disenfranchise African Americans. It seems that any excuse will do, no matter how arbitrary or unconstitutional, to keep students from voting in Williamsburg.

p. So why did the city of Williamsburg decide that College students are analogous to felons and the insane — unsuitable to vote? The apparent motivation is perhaps more shocking than the act itself.
In early 2004, before the disenfranchisement campaign began, four students declared their intention to run for the City Council.

p. They were running in response to increased enforcement of a local anti-student law forbidding more than three unrelated people to live together. (See my column, “Off-Campus Discrimination,” in the Aug. 24 issue of The Flat Hat for an in-depth look at this law.) The students promised to repeal the law if elected, and at first it appeared likely this would happen — College students, after all, comprise the majority of Williamsburg’s population.

p. But this would have meant that the members of the City Council would lose their positions of power. What followed will be immediately familiar to any student of, say, Soviet political history — registration policies were abruptly changed, students were almost categorically forbidden to vote in the local election, and none of the students won office. Though the City Council does not directly appoint the registrar, its refusal to prevent him from disenfranchising over half of the Council’s constituents make it clearly complicit.

p. Last year, when two members of City Council (one of whom was Mayor Jeanne Zeidler) were again up for re-election, another student, David Sievers ’07, ran for office. Again, students sought voting rights. Again, the registrar fought to deny students those rights. In addition to the same tricks of 2004, he began to ignore students outright, refusing to respond to applications or sometimes to read them at all. Despite this, Sievers, with the help of only a handful of student votes, came within 400 votes of defeating Zeidler. Non-student residents of Williamsburg must be as fed up with City Council as we are for so many of them to vote for a 20-year-old college student over their incumbent mayor.

p. Following this narrow victory, City Council members stepped up efforts to block students from voting them out of office. After some students living off-campus successfully registered to vote in the 2006 election, the city fought to keep students from renting off-campus homes. This spring, it evicted 38 students living in such houses. It has also used $310,000 of taxpayer money to buy a rental house on student-heavy Harrison Avenue. The city stated it would only sell the house to a buyer who agreed never to rent it. (Any renters on Harrison would surely be students.) Outright disenfranchisement, it seems, is not enough to keep City Council members sufficiently confident of their re-election.

p. But all hope is not lost. We have a few Jeffersonian crusaders on our side. Among them is Nichol, who publicly called the city’s voting policies a “massive abrogation of the right to equal participation.” Matt Beato ’09 despite chairing the Student Assembly senate, a group known primarily for childish in-fighting, has worked for student voting rights almost since his arrival on campus.

p. The real hero is undoubtedly SA President Zach Pilchen ’09, whose fights for student voting are impossible to catalogue in a single column. Most recently, Pilchen gave a speech on the disenfranchisement of College students to a Washington, D.C. audience that included members of Congress, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Election Assistance Commission. The response, he said, was outright shock — something not easily evoked from the often-jaded members of groups like the ACLU.
“Other students had stories about long lines, screwy voter registration drives, broken voting machines and pre-election misinformation campaigns, but the story of everything that has happened in Williamsburg over the past four years elicited audible gasps from the panelists,” Pilchen told me.

p. A few days ago, I went to the voter registrar’s office to try for myself to register to vote in Williamsburg. I was unsure what to expect — Dave Andrews, who had been the registrar since March of 2004, was fired suddenly and under mysterious circumstances this past April. I assumed his replacement, Winifred Sowder, would be as hostile as Andrews had been. I could not have been more wrong.

p. I told Sowder I was a student and wanted to register to vote in Williamsburg. “That’s great,” she responded. “We love students. I think it’s great when students want to vote. Here’s the form.”
I almost forgot my own middle name. Could it be? A member of Williamsburg government who values, even pursues, democracy? I completed the half-page form and handed her my driver’s license and a copy of my lease (I rent a house off campus). I received my voter ID card in the mail two days later. On May 6, 2008, when three members of City Council go up for re-election, I will be ready.

p. __Max Fisher is a senior at the College.__

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