Kelly Horwitz is an appellate attorney practicing in Tuscaloosa.
Registering to vote for the first time is an exciting rite of passage for young people that should be commended and encouraged. At the same time, exercising that right while in college is more legally complicated than one might expect.
Because college students are in a transitional phase in their lives – not physically living with their parents, but not yet completely independent – the question arises of exactly where a college student should register to vote.
This is not a frivolous question. As Tuscaloosa has seen on multiple occasions, the issue of proper voter registration of college students comes with serious consequences. Twice in the last 20 years, local elections involving large numbers of student voters have ended up in court. Questions arose over whether students were essentially bribed to vote for a particular candidate at the behest of the Machine and whether students met the residency requirements to vote in a Tuscaloosa election.
In both cases, hundreds of students were identified in lawsuits, required to fill out affidavits, be served with subpoenas and required to testify in court.
I know this from personal experience. I was the candidate challenging the election in 2013. And because this was not the first time this chaos had occurred in my downtown voting district, I pursued the issue to the Alabama Supreme Court, asking the court to once and for all determine what is required for a student to establish residency where they attend college.
The Alabama Supreme Court spoke clearly in 2015. It is not enough, the court said, for a student to physically reside in Tuscaloosa to be able to legally vote in a municipal election. Instead, the real question is where a student is “domiciled,” a legal concept of residency that incorporates more than just physical location.
The Supreme Court ruled that a student remains domiciled at their prior residence (usually their parents’ home) unless there are further indications that the student intends to reside in the college community indefinitely. Evidence of that intent includes the address on a student’s driver’s license, income taxes, car registration and where the student receives grades. Also relevant is whether the student was previously registered to vote outside of Tuscaloosa and the location of the student’s bank.
Simply put, the question is where a student is more likely to have “skin in the game.” That makes sense. A voter has strong interests in how income taxes and car registration fees are spent and in how the community to which one has long-lasting ties is governed. Since most college students don’t remain in their college community after graduation, they leave before even a single local political term is over and don’t have to live with the consequences of their vote. Instead, local residents bear the costs of a political system that is manipulated to ignore their interests. This is not the way the democratic process is intended to work.
The Alabama Supreme Court has eliminated the confusion that marred Tuscaloosa’s elections in the past. With clarity in the law, let’s encourage all to register and all to vote in their proper, legal residence. If that happens, we can ensure that voting will remain the foundation of a healthy democratic process in our city, our state and our nation.