In a Tuesday House committee, Rep. Jeff Zenger, R-Forsyth, questioned whether college students, particularly Appalachian State University students, who are still registered as “dependents” on their parents’ taxes, should be able to vote in their college town.
The committee was hearing a different election-related bill, H.B. 770, that did not grapple with student residency, but the committee quickly took an interest in Zenger’s question.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Boone had an estimated population of 19,756 as of July 2022. According to Appalachian State University, the school has 21,253 students when you include graduates and undergraduates.
It would only take a portion of the student population voting in local elections to have a significant impact on the outcome.
Zenger, who said he has sent two kids and paid for two degrees at App State, said he daughter came to him with what she thought was problematic for local residents in college town. Zenger paraphrased the problem as his daughter explained it to him.
“Dad,” she said to Zenger. “What’s really interesting and not really fair is that we do a lot of work on the campus to register voters, and when they vote for Senate and vote for President, that’s great. But what isn’t fair is that they vote in the local elections. The problem is that the college students don’t understand the issues of the local politics and the local people. Effectively, when you have a big university in a college town, the college students have the ability to completely eliminate represenation of the local people.”
Zenger continued by proposing a solution.
“[My daughter’s suggestion] was if you are being claimed as a dependent on somebody’s taxes but are a legal voter of voting age, you must vote [at the address] where you are registered as a dependent,” Zenger said. “Everyone would still have the ability to vote, but you wouldn’t effectively box people out in the local elections.”
Zenger said he thought it was a “fantastic observation and point” from his daughter.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said she recalled a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the matter and implied it would not align with this idea. Erika Churchill, a nonpartisan staff attorney, after being prompted again by Rep. Harrison, said she would have to look into the case for a refresher on the ruling, but also recalled that it would not allow this change Zenger was proposing.
However, Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, who is also an attorney by trade, said he is familiar with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling referenced and believes determining factors determining residency is under the purview of the state legislature.
“My recollection of that Supreme Court decision is a little different,” Blackwell said. “My recollection is that the Supreme Court basically said students are entitled to vote at their place of residence, and that we still have the opportunity to determine by normal standards what your residence is. We have opted for processes that assume that if you are in college, that we [may] treat you as a resident [of the college town], but I don’t think the Supreme Court said that.”
Blackwell noted that he is glad to be corrected if his recollection of the case is incorrect.