[Image via nbcwashington]

Advocates are disputing the rejection by Fairfax County, VA of a large number of George Mason University student voter registrations, saying the local registrar isn’t giving students the opportunity to fix address issues before Election Day. The Washington Post has more:

Elections officials have tossed the voter registrations of George Mason University students who used a general campus address in their applications, prompting complaints from voting rights advocates.

The Fairfax County registrar rejected 171 registration applications last week, citing invalid residential addresses. The registrar, Gary Scott, said the students listed campus mailbox numbers and a general university address, making it impossible to know where they live and which county precinct, if any, they are eligible to vote in.

But lawyers with a national civil rights group accused Scott of running afoul of state regulations — and said his actions all but guarantee that most of the 171 students will be unable to vote in Virginia’s Nov. 5 elections.

The dispute highlights the difficulty college students often face when they try to vote while living away at school, with idiosyncratic campus mail systems often contributing to the confusion. Protecting that fast-growing slice of the electorate has become a major priority for voting rights groups, which are expanding their legal staffs and scouring the country for potential barriers to challenge as they prepare for the 2020 presidential election…

“We take any policies or practices that might have the effect of suppressing student votes very seriously, and we’ll be working tirelessly to protect their rights in the 2020 election cycle,” said John Powers, a lawyer with the D.C.-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which has challenged the 171 application rejections in Virginia.

The underlying issue is the use of campus mailboxes as residence addresses, which the registrar says makes it impossible to verify eligibility or properly place students on the election map:

Scott, the Fairfax County registrar, said the origin of the problem is that GMU — a sprawling state university of more than 25,000 undergraduates about 20 miles west of Washington — allows any student to have a campus mailbox, whether they live on campus or not.

That made it impossible to discern eligibility for the students who listed their post box number with the school’s main campus address, rather than their dorm name or off-campus residential address, Scott said.

At least three of the 171 students actually live in neighboring Prince William County, meaning they’re not eligible to vote in Fairfax, he said.

“The point is, unless we know where on campus you reside, we can’t register you,” Scott said.

The heart of the dispute centers on the county’s initial “rejection” of the registrations, which advocates claim could discourage students from curing the address issues in time:

Powers said his primary objection is to Scott’s decision to send a “notice of rejection” to each of the 171 students. Virginia election law prohibits local registrars from rejecting an application because of insufficient address information. In that case, the registrar is supposed to send a request for information — not a notice of rejection.

Scott said that after mailing the rejection letters, his office sent follow-up letters to students specifying how to fix their application: by providing either a dorm name indicating that they live on campus, or a private residential address indicating they live elsewhere. The office initially gave students until Oct. 26 to act, then moved the deadline back to Nov. 2, three days before the election.

But Powers said the initial rejection letters could dissuade the students from fixing their registrations.

“To some extent the damage may have been done,” Powers said. “Some of these students may be first-time voters. Essentially what’s happened is, they’ve gotten a letter saying, ‘We rejected your application.’ There’s no mention of Oct. 26 or Nov. 2 or any kind of cure period.”

Scott conceded that students do not often check their campus mailboxes and may not have seen the correspondence. He said it’s too soon to say how many students will successfully fix their applications, as he just sent the most recent letter this week…

If the students don’t fix their applications, they will be unable to vote in a momentous election on Nov. 5 in Virginia, the only state in the country where contests will determine the legislature’s balance of power this year.

Needless to say, this is a key issue in a crucial “off-year” election in the Old Dominion. Increasingly, we are seeing interest in allowing registrants to “cure” problems with voter registrations; however, this can be a challenge among student populations, who are not always as focused on the voting process and for whom any roadblock to registration can essentially prevent them from participating. Here’s hoping that the issue can be resolved before November 5 – and if not, before next year’s even higher-profile presidential election. Stay tuned …