Special Edition
Oct 16, 2007

LU students could become potent force in citywide elections

by Ron Brown and Matt Busse

Several weeks before his death, the Rev. Jerry Falwell was determined to close the gap between Lynchburg's Ward III and two other city voting wards by encouraging Liberty University students to register to vote in local elections.

"We have never registered our students," Falwell said in an April interview. "So therefore, we are at the mercy of other wards. We want fair and equal representation. We want Ward III to have equal footing with all the rest of the wards. Just in recent weeks it's gotten to the top of our list."

Falwell, LU's founder, said he planned to write a letter to Liberty students this summer asking them to register to vote in Lynchburg.

"If the city's population includes Liberty, then the number of registered voters should be commensurate," he said.

"Maybe that's our fault. We just hadn't made it an emphasis here and we plan to make it so beginning this fall."

The boundaries of Lynchburg's four wards are redrawn every 10 years based on U.S. Census results, which count LU students - both on- and off-campus - as part of the city's population.

LU projects it will have more than 7,500 students living on campus and more than 4,600 in local off-campus housing by the time the 2010 Census rolls around.

"You could reach a point where most of Ward III is comprised of Liberty University students and no one is eligible to vote," said Jerry Falwell Jr., LU's new chancellor and a lawyer.

"It seem ridiculous to me that you can count the students in determining the size of the ward and not allow them to vote. If the issue is decided by a court, that would definitely be a factor."

The right of college students to vote where they attend school has been a sticking point in other Virginia cities and in the General Assembly this year.

In 2004, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia offered assistance to William & Mary students who encountered a newly established policy by the Williamsburg registrar making it difficult for them to vote in local elections.

"Virginia law requires voters to register in the locality where they have an abode and are domiciled," wrote Kent Willis, ACLU's executive director. "Students typically have two abodes in any given year, one for nine months where they attend school and another for three months where they spend their summers. Under any analysis, the principal abode for most students is located in the jurisdiction where they attend school."

Legislation that would have given Virginia students the right to register to vote in the city or county where their college is located failed this year in a House of Delegates committee chaired by Del. Lacey Putney, I-Bedford.

Under the proposed law, registrars across the state would have been required to presume that any address furnished by a college student is his or her domicile, regardless of whether the student has "an intent to reside indefinitely at the address?"

Pat Bower, Lynchburg's general registrar, said the city electoral board plans to discuss the matter at its next meeting, which has not yet been scheduled.

Bower said one concern is that out-of-town students registered in Lynchburg might also cast absentee ballots in their hometown.

"There's no communication nationwide between voting registration systems," Bower said.

She said voting officials often suggest college students carefully consider whether it's better to register in Lynchburg than in their hometowns.

The students are often counted on their parents' tax returns as dependents, and sometimes students' scholarships and tuition rates can be affected by a change in address, she said.

If a college student insists on registering to vote in Lynchburg, however, state law can't stop them, Bower said.

"Ultimately, the law says they determine where their legal residence is," she said.

Only a few hundred students are registered to vote under LU's address. Most registered between 1996 and 2000 and will be legally purged from voter rolls this year, Bower said.

A handful of students are registered at Lynchburg College and Randolph-Macon Woman's College. Overall, the number of college students registered to vote is "pretty small," Bower said.

Falwell Jr. said LU plans a voter registration drive initially targeting the 3,000 or so students who live off campus, mostly in Ward III.

"We want to educate Liberty students on how local politics affects them and how it impacts what they pay for their education," he said. "I don't think it would necessarily change the faces on council as much as it would change their focus. If Liberty students are seen as constituents, I think it will have a huge impact on major decisions."

Ward III Councilman Jeff Helgeson said if LU students began voting en masse, the city's political priorities could shift greatly.

Helgeson, a Liberty graduate, said an LU-backed council might focus more on improvements in the Wards Road area instead of downtown, for example. Helgeson himself pushed that issue during council's most recent round of budget talks.

"With a student population of 10,000 - that's a lot of students," Helgeson said. "It could have a huge impact."

Falwell Jr. said he thinks most of the school's dorm students also should be eligible to vote.

"There are certain benchmarks that will allow one student to vote while another can't," he said.

Some students may be ineligible to vote in Lynchburg if they plan on returning home to live with their parents following graduation.

"We don't think that many fall into that category," Falwell Jr. said.

He said getting students to vote is simply acknowledging the changing face of Lynchburg.

"Lynchburg is becoming more of a college town and the decisions that City Council makes impacts those students," he said.

"When City Council makes a decision to spend its money on roads in a different part of the city, Liberty might have to build roads using tuition money. That impacts the amount of money the students pay for their education."

Falwell Sr. said in April that he was not targeting any current council members by encouraging students to vote.

"In all fairness, the city now is treating us like an equal partner," he said.

Falwell Sr. said more political involvement from LU students may help influence the way the city allocates its money and other resources.

"We would never ask for any more than the University of Virginia or Virginia Tech," he said. "But we've been a stepchild (in Lynchburg) for our first 36 years."

Right now, the city is spending millions of dollars in downtown revitalization and investing comparatively little in the area around Wards and Candlers Mountain roads, which surround the LU campus.

"When you add all the money up - sales tax and real estate tax - I got an idea that Ward III leads all the wards," Falwell Jr. said. "I know we don't get those kind of benefits."

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