Harrisonburg: Are voters being disenfranchised?

Column by Joseph Fitzgerald

Hundreds of potential first-time voters may have been disenfranchised by the Harrisonburg Registrar’s Office as part of a pattern that increasingly looks like an active campaign to limit voting by college students in the presidential election.

The campaign began with unsubstantiated warnings to students about financial repercussions from registering; it is culminating with the rejection, without any stated cause, of four times as many registrations as election officials publicly admit to.

The question remains of what the registrar’s intentions are. The campaign has gone on long enough, and in enough ways, to make it a fair question to ask.

The latest move in the two-month campaign was a ream of letters to voters telling them of unspecified “irregularities” in their applications to vote. Many voters, mostly JMU students, called the registrar’s office to ask about the alleged “irregularities,” only to be told their forms couldn’t be found among the hundreds in the office.

Had the Registrar’s Office officially rejected the forms, the office would have been required by state rules to send the voters new, blank forms to fill out. By not actually “rejecting” the forms, or stating a reason, the registrar avoided the responsibility to send the forms and thus ease the process for voters to correct the forms.

An example would be a voter who, having already had to enter his birthday twice, inadvertently put his birthday in the field for today’s date. While obviously an innocent error that could be corrected with a phone call, the error could also be used as an excuse to send a letter citing vague “irregularities.” Another example might be a voter who wrote the city or zip code in the wrong field, crossed it out and corrected it. The registrar could claim the form had been altered.

Much of the above information is based on discussions with rejected voters and listening to one end of phone conversations with the registrar’s office. Other information in this column comes from discussions with Democratic Party officials and election officials. Much of it is second-hand but supported by multiple sources or actual viewing of letters and databases.

The voters were not told what the “irregularities” were, and the voters themselves were not named on the letters. The letters were photocopied and sent to voters without any further information. An election official said Monday there were fewer than 100 of the letters, but the State Board of Elections released a list showing almost four times that many voters rejected in Harrisonburg as of several days before the final registration rush began.

The same election official, asked Monday for assistance from a woman whose daughter had been rejected, held out a copy of the state voting laws, several hundred pages thick, and said, “It’s in there.”

The voters may appeal their rejections to the Circuit Court, but at least one has been told the case would have to be heard in Winchester. It is unclear whether the Registrar’s Office can still reverse its decision to reject voter registration applications. Registrars are allowed to contact voters to clarify information on forms.

The State Board of Elections listed 1,794 new city voters from February to the end of September, a week before the deadline to register. Almost 390 were listed by the State Board as rejected. The number is not precise because some voters are listed twice, having had their registration dismissed for “irregularities” more than once. Those numbers suggest that almost 18 percent of new registrations in the city were rejected, but it does not reflect the 500 forms the registrar reported receiving just on the final day, nor does it reflect any that may have been rejected from that group. Adding to the confusion, it is not clear if those who received the “irregularities” letter have since been officially rejected.

Locally, many residents feel that college students should not be allowed to vote in Harrisonburg, fearing the students could organize and stack the city council with 20-year-olds with no stake in the community. In 2000 the city’s Electoral Board chair spoke publicly of a suggestion that she “lose” up to 300 student voter registration forms. Students have, however, never shown any inclination to take the political actions many long-time residents fear.

The Supreme Court, in a back-handed way, has upheld the right of students to vote where they go to school. In a Texas case, Symms, the court upheld without comment a lower court ruling supporting students, but the case had complicating side issues and was accompanied by two dissenting opinions.

In August, the registrar was issuing inaccurate warnings to students that their financial aid, tax status or insurance could be adversely affected if they chose to register to vote in Harrisonburg instead of at their parents’ home. The Electoral Board voted in early September to discontinue the warnings. Similar warnings in Montgomery County, home of Virginia Tech, had been the subject of unfavorable national stories in the New York Times and Inside Higher Education.

The current campaign of rejecting student registrations apparently began after the bogus warnings were discontinued.

The local newspaper did not cover the issue of the warnings, except to repeat the inaccurate information on its right-wing editorial page. Other than that, the local media has not covered this story, perhaps because of lack of knowledge and because of the story’s complexities. It is a difficult story to tell in soundbites and quick and dirty interviews. One newspaper reporter said he did not cover the story because it had been covered on a blog, hburgnews, and he didn’t want to steal someone else’s story.

The registrar and the senior member of the Electoral Board are Republicans, and polls suggest new voters this year will tend Democratic. Again, it is fair to question the intentions in the office. The effect, regardless of intent, is a Republican registrar disenfranchising several hundred potentially Democratic voters.

The number may seem small in a state where more than 3 million people may vote, but three statewide elections in the past two decades have been decided by fewer than 10,000 votes, one of them by fewer than 500. Virginia is leaning Democratic in the presidential race this year, and Republicans have a vested interest in limiting the electorate, where possible, to those who have kept the state Republican in past presidential elections.

This column intended to be informational, partly because the author has, at this point, no idea what the next step might be. Sunshine, as always, is the best disinfectant.

 

Joseph Fitzgerald is the vice chairman of the Harrisonburg Democratic Committee.

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