Pasquotank County Republican Chair Pete Gilbert makes no bones about his mission to challenge the voter registrations of students attending Elizabeth City State University.
He did it in April, and he’ll do it again.
Last week Gilbert elevated his attack on the civic participation of local students, challenging the residency of ECSU student Montravias King and persuading the Republican-controlled board of elections to pull his name off the ballot for city council.
Empowered by that victory, Gilbert announced that he was taking his show on the road and urged his counterparts in other college towns to jump on his bandwagon.
Gilbert has a pitch – that under North Carolina law students can’t claim their campus address as their residence for voting purposes.
And he’s got a captive audience – majority Republican presence on county boards of election across the state.
But the trouble with Gilbert is that his pitch is likely wrong and his timing is awful.
Contrary to what Gilbert says, “in North Carolina, students [can] vote where they go to school, specifically including a dorm, as long as they do not intend to return to their parents’ home to live after graduation,” says  Gerry Cohen, special counsel to the General Assembly, in today’s News & Observer.
And Gilbert’s road show opened just as hundreds of thousands of students were returning to North Carolina campuses largely defrocked of their voting rights here, and coincided with the announced poll closing at 17,000-student Appalachian State University and proposed closing at Winston-Salem State University – like ECSU, one of North Carolina’s historically black colleges.
All of that makes his mission look a lot more like a partisan vendetta with racial undertones than the lesson in good citizenship he professed.
(Interestingly, students at the conservative 6,000-student Campbell University returned to school last week to learn that for them voting had become easier, as a polling place had been moved onto campus. They’ll now vote at the John W. Pope, Jr. Convocation Center there.)
So Pete Gilbert might find his road of a little bumpier than usual. Not only has he raised the specter of lawsuits; he’s awakened sleepy college students.
“College students get it,” said Louis Dukes, a junior at Campbell who is also the president of the College Democrats of North Carolina. “They get that this is politically motivated. It’s not about best election practices or expanding access to the ballot or making democracy function better. And it’s really discouraging to young people throughout the state who are overwhelmingly independent-minded and want our politicians to come to the table with students and talk about the issues we care about.”
The trouble with Gilbert
The pitch Pete Gilbert made when challenging Montravias King’s residency for purposes of running for city council – the same residency test for voting – is flawed in two respects.
Gilbert told the board of elections that under North Carolina law, a campus address was not enough to establish residency, and then argued that King had to come forward with additional proof of residency, such as a driver’s license.
But here’s what state law says: “so long as a student intends to make the student’s home in the community where the student is physically present for the purpose of attending school . . . the student may claim the college community as the student’s domicile.”
The General Assembly added  that provision to the statute defining residency for voting purposes in 1991, in order to bring the state in line with developing case law here and elsewhere across the country. That included a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court decision, U.S. v. Symm , in which the court affirmed a Texas court ruling that, for purposes of voting residence, students should not be treated differently than other voters.
And Gilbert’s contention that King had to come forward with additional proof of residency is premised upon an incorrect interpretation of an outdated proposition.
Relying on a memo from the state elections board, Gilbert argued that for purposes of a challenge, “there is a legal presumption that a student who leaves for college is not domiciled in the college town to which he goes,” and added that students must come forward with proof to overcome that presumption.
That proposition not only flatly contradicts state law as enacted in 1991, it also results in the different treatment of students that the Symm court said violated the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The board of elections can’t just presume that college students are being untruthful when they claim residence on the state registration form, said Justin Levitt, an election law expert at Loyola University in Los Angeles. “The court in Symm said you can’t just assume that students are wrongdoers; you can’t treat them differently than anyone else.”
The presumption that Gilbert relied on had already been dismissed as outdated in the 1970s by a number of courts, including the lower court in Symm. In New Jersey, for example, the Supreme Court said  that the time had come to dispense with that presumption, given the realities of the time – then, in 1972: “It was generally assumed that the college student would lead a semi-cloistered life with little or no interest in non-college community affairs and with the intent of returning on graduation to his parents’ home and way of living. Such assumption, of course, has no current validity.”
“Awakening a sleepy giant”
Close to 300,000 college students returned to campuses throughout North Carolina these past few weeks to learn that, while they were away, the governor and state GOP lawmakers had trampled on their voting rights.
The rules for voting in elections this year are the same as in 2012, but beginning next year, loads of changes are coming .
By 2016, college students will need a photo ID to vote in person. They can use a driver’s license if it’s from North Carolina; if not, they’ll have to get one of the “free” IDs being offered by the state – for which they’ll have to produce a number of documents to prove that they are who they say they are.
Beginning with elections in 2014, early voting will be shortened by a week and same day registration will be dead. The rules for absentee voting will also change, and more partisan observers are authorized to challenge voter registrations.
They’re not happy.
“I will go as far as saying this is an attack on student voters — they’re blatantly trying to suppress the student vote,” said Robert Nunnery, president of the UNC-system Association of Student Governments and one of several student representatives voicing their concerns in yesterday’s Daily Tar Heel .
But they’re not backing down.
The weekend after the story broke about the hearing in Pasquotank County, students at Appalachian State registered 500 new voters, according to Ian O’Keefe, a junior there. O’Keefe – who described the new polling place ordered by the county board as a “dangerous 20- to 25-minute walk from campus” — said that students there had been nonetheless energized by recent events.
“We believe it’s very important that, as people who are affected by decisions made in this community, we have our voices heard by this community,” he said.
“There’s going to be a renewed activism across the state like we haven’t seen in a while,” Campbell’s Louis Duke added. “Students are going to fight for their rights. I hope that Republicans in the General Assembly realize that this may have been a mistake. They may have awakened a sleeping giant.”