The State Board of Elections approved changes to a state statute Saturday that gives students the right to register to vote at their campus address.
The updated statute considers a person’s primary home to be the physical location where they live and what they consider to be “the center of his domestic, social and civil life.” It was approved unanimously by the three-member board after a two-day meeting at the capital.
“Since I have been here, I have not heard of any students being barred from voting in Williamsburg if they wanted to,” Student Assembly Secretary of Public Affairs David Witkowsky ’11 said. “However, I am hopeful that the more explicit language will encourage more out-of-state students to feel comfortable participating in local elections during their time here at the College.”
The previous status was considered vague on many issues, and was left open to interpretation for each registrar. At Virginia Tech, where then-candidate Barack Obama was holding a voter drive, the local registrar incorrectly warned students that a change in residency could have severe consequences for their taxes and scholarships. The new statute uses explicit language that aims to prevent this sort of situation from happening again.
This weekend’s vote marks an end to a process that began this spring, when the General Assembly passed legislation requiring the board to create uniform regulatons for determining a voter’s residence.
“For William and Mary students nothing changes, they will continue to be able to do what they’ve always done — which is register to vote,” Williamsburg voter registrar Winifred Sowder said. “I don’t see how the recent statute will change anything for the city of Williamsburg, nor would I say the students voting before now have affected the city, either.”
Sowder became the city’s voter registrar on July 1, when she replaced previous registrar Dave Andrews. Andrew’s tenure in office was considered adversarial among students, as they were often discouraged from
registering in Williamsburg.
When Sowder became registrar, students became able to vote as long as they were a U.S. Citizen and held proof of residence within the City of Williamsburg. She is a member of the Virginia Residency Task Force, who worked for months to bring about the changes made in the statute.
“I don’t know if turnout in Williamsburg will change,” Witkowsky said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to have Ms. Sowder allow us the right to vote in Williamsburg as it is. Now we can be sure that if she ever leaves we will be guaranteed the same opportunities.”
The College of William and Mary student body has an active history of involvement in Williamsburg. 1,400 students registered to vote in the 2008 elections.
Former Student Assembly Senate Chair Matt Beato ’09 ran for City Council in 2008 and obtained 893 votes, 15.6 percent of the total vote.
The news has not been well received throughout Virginia.
“I’m against it because I think the students have more of a vested interest in their hometown and I think they’re not tax paying citizens, and they don’t really understand the politics of the city that they’re coming to school in,” Harrisonburg resident Elaine Keegan told WHSV-TV.
The board included a provision in the statute which prevents voters from changing their residency for the purpose of voting in a particular precinct. This addresses the concerns of some who fear that people will change residency to a certain locality for the sole purpose of altering the outcome of an election.
The U.S. Department of Justice must still approve the changes before they can be implemented.