Circuit Court Judge Robin Stilwell on Friday ordered the Greenville County Board of Voter Registration and Elections to immediately stop giving an additional questionnaire to college students who try to register to vote using their on-campus address.
Stilwell granted a temporary injunction to two Furman University students who sued the voter registration board after they said they were prevented from registering to vote in Greenville County even though they live here most of the year.
“In denying the requested relief, the Plaintiffs would forever lose their right to exercise a highly prized and fundamental democratic right to vote in this particular election,” Stilwell wrote in his order. “In granting relieve, on the other hand, the Greenville Board will simply be required to register voters in accordance with its prescribed duties.”
The lawsuit claims students who live in on-campus student housing are not allowed to register to vote via mail unless they complete an additional form that the Greenville County Board of Voter Registration and Elections created. The form contains 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. Students who try to register in person are told they can only register in the locale where their parents live.
The lawsuit filed by Sulaiman Ahmad, Katherine West and Benjamin Longnecker in the Greenville County Court of Common Pleas named 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.
County officials said the 11 questions stem from a 1973 federal district court ruling, Dyer v. Huff. The ruling said the S.C. Attorney General in a letter dated Nov. 22, 1971 addressed to the state Election Commission outlined the legal requirements of residency as they applied to college students. The letter had 11 questions that registration boards could use to determine residency. The court ruling was specific to Greenville County.
There are about 7,000 students in Greenville County who live in on-campus housing.
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 they could determine her “intent to register.”
“I find these questions incredibly invasive,” she said 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’s 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.”
In his ruling, Stilwell found that Ahmad didn’t have standing in the case because he had not tried to register to vote.
Stilwell said in his order that several published cases address similar circumstances. In Symm v. United States, the elections authority in Texas was found to violate the rights of students and was proscribed as unconstitutional. The order said the court is reluctant to take an absolute position without a full evidentiary hearing.
In a letter to the Greenville County board after the lawsuit was filed, the State Election Commission said the policy was unlawful and to stop sending the letters.