Furman students sue over voter registration

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Three Furman University students have sued local and state election officials for the way the Greenville County Board of Voter Registration handles voter registration for students with on-campus addresses.

In the lawsuit, Sulaiman Ahmad, Katherine West and Benjamin Longnecker claim students who live in on-campus student housing are not allowed to register to vote unless they complete an additional form that Greenville County Board of Voter Registration and Elections created asking 11 questions such as where they work, where their vehicle is registered, where they hold bank accounts, what address they listed on their last income tax return and whether their parents claim them as a dependent.

The lawsuit filed in the Greenville County Court of Common Pleas on Wednesday names the Greenville County Board of Voter Registration and Elections, county voter registration and election director Conway Belangia, the South Carolina Election Commission and state Election Commission Executive Director Marci Andino.

With the general election a little over six weeks away, the students are asking for a temporary injunction. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 6.

American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Susan Dunn is one of three attorneys representing the students. The ACLU has filed lawsuits over college student voter registration in other states over the years.

West, a sophomore at Furman, said after she mailed her voter registration information, she received a letter from the Greenville County Election Commission Office with a sheet of questions so the could determine her “intent to register.”

“I find these questions incredibly invasive,” she said the in an affidavit. “I refuse to answer them.” The letter said if she did not answer the questions and resubmit her application to vote within 10 days, she would be denied the ability to cast a ballot in her home county, according to the affidavit.

In the lawsuit, Longnecker said he went to the voter registration office with a completed state form. Once the staff learned he was a student at Furman and his parents lived in Tennessee, the board refused to process his application and told him he had to register where his parents reside, according to the lawsuit.

Ahmad is the Furman student representative of the Southern Conference Votes Challenge, a competition among colleges to encourage voter registration and participation. Ahmad plan to conduct a voter registration drive on campus was approved by his faculty advisor who suggested he meet with Belangia.

According to an affidavit, Belangia told Ahmad to have Furman students file absentee ballots instead of registering as Greenville County voters. Ahmad said in his affidavit that Belangia said the state Election Commission was wrong in its interpretation of the law and explained why he does not approve of college students who moved here from out of state registering as Greenville County voters. Ahmad said Belangia told him that students listed as dependents on their parents’ tax returns do not pay taxes in Greenville County, making them ineligible to vote.

“I believe that his interpretation of the law is incorrect,” Ahmad said in the affidavit. “The South Carolina Election Commission clearly outlines that college students may register to vote using their dormitories as a place of residency. Because of Mr. Belangia’s interpretation of the law, many Furman students have been unable to register in Greenville.”

Ahmad said in 2012, Furman University had a voting rate of 24 percent. In 2014, it was 8 percent. He said the average rate for colleges similar to Furman is nearly double.

Local and state election officials have not yet responded to the lawsuit.

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