A Virginia State Board of Elections questionnaire — designed to help out-of-state students “in determining their legal residence” — asks potential voters a series of questions about length of residency, tax dependency status, and other factors that advocacy groups say have no bearing on student registration elibility.
The form — called a “self-guided questionnaire” on the Virginia SBE’s website — is filed under the site’s “Voting Info For College Students” page. The SBE notes that the form “is not required in order to register to vote,” but recommends that students complete it for their own files.
“If you take a look at the questionnaire, you have to ask, why is it even there?” said Josh Spaulding of the Fair Elections Legal Network. Spaulding sent a letter Friday to the Virginia SBE asking that they remove the form because its questions “are either presented in a misleading or incomplete fashion or are not relevant to the consideration of whether an individual is legally eligible to register to vote in Virginia.”
But Don Palmer, Secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections told BuzzFeed that the questionnaire has been on the website for almost four years now. It was originally part of a Virginia compromise on residency issues and meant to “provide information to students and parents who repeatedly requested information on this issue,” said Palmer in an emailed statement.
Palmer also noted that the questionnaire is voluntary and has already “helped thousands of students answer the important question of whether or not they are residents of Virginia,” he said.
But Spaulding argues that the questionnaire doesn’t guide students through that question. “If a student comes to this page,” Spaulding told BuzzFeed, “it’s just going to be confusing. It doesn’t give any information, it just asks questions that have no real effect on whether you can register as an out-of-state student.”
Matthew Segal, founder of youth advocacy group Our Time, also took issue with the questionnaire. “It does not start off by saying, ‘here are your rights.’ It asks you questions and doesn’t give you answers. It just leaves you a lingering paranoia about whether you should vote in Virginia or not.”
Segal says the Virginia questionnaire is part of a growing effort to suppress student voters. “The questionnaire is particularly troubling because the source is actually the state Board of Elections,” said Segal. “Oftentimes the intimidation practices will come from partisan officials.”
In New Hampshire, students are fighting a new law passed over the veto of Democratic Governor John Lynch that would require out-of-state student voters to register their cars in New Hampshire and obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license.
But Palmer says the Virginia Board of Elections is only trying to avoid confusion and difficulty for student voters. “The legal determination of residency can be a complicated one,” he said in his statement. “Domicile is a subjective standard and the questionnaire helps guide the individuals to determine whether or not they meet the domicile requirement.”
Correction: This post originally attributed quotes from Don Palmer to Justin Riemer, a spokesperson for the Virginia Board of Elections who provided Palmer’s statement.