Voter misinformation

The deadline to register for the Nov. 4 election is Monday (Oct. 20). Procrastinators should go to the Butte County Elections Office, 25 County Center Drive, Oroville.

As one of the most significant elections in years draws ever so close, campaigners have been slinging mud by the barrelful. That’s to be expected: Americans say we hate dirty politics, yet dirty politics works. Bet you remember less of what John Kerry said in ‘04 than what swift boat veterans said about him—and it’s understandable if you think George H.W. Bush’s running mate was Willie Horton.

Naturally enough, ugliness has surfaced now that the country is poised to elect its first black president. Even more disappointing than the incessant “Barack HUSSEIN Obama” references and “Is Obama the WRIGHT choice?” stickers are the attempts to scare voters into staying home. Just Google “2008 voter suppression” and you’ll find a host of accounts and analyses.

As with any Internet search, though, think carefully about what you read. It’s easy to find what you’re looking for; it’s not as easy to look further.

Case in point is a letter I received from a well-intentioned reader. She’d seen an editorial in the Sacramento Bee that called out a Virginia registrar for discouraging students to register to vote. She wrote about how that county’s clerk “issued a press release telling students that if they register to vote at their college address, their parents will no longer be able to declare them as dependents on income-tax filings, that the students could lose their scholarships and that they could lose health, auto and other insurance coverage.”

Declaring that “none of this is true,” the letter-writer continued: “It turns out that Virginia isn’t the only place this is happening. There are other states and local communities making it difficult for students to vote.”

That may well be true … but, in Virginia, this is not the case of a rogue registrar. Rather, it appears the commonwealth code is to blame.

I won’t take credit for that concept. I wondered about this letter, so I ran the story by Candace Grubbs, Butte County’s clerk-recorder/registrar. Though she and the CN&R don’t always see eye to eye, we share common goals of fostering voter participation and countering misinformation.

“The registrars I know personally from other states would never state untruths or be involved with discouraging any group of people from voting,” she replied. “Something doesn’t seem right.”

And when she pointed me toward the Virginia state code, I found some interesting lines.

The eligibility requirement starts with: “Be a resident of Virginia (A person who has come to Virginia for temporary purposes and intends to return to another state is not considered a resident for voting purposes).” The definition of residency hinges on “intent to remain there for an unlimited time"—not, say, nine months a year over four years.

So, Virginia requires students to officially log their residence to the county where they intend to register. In some cases, this could entail a change of states or a declaration of financial independence that could affect a scholarship, insurance, etc., that’s residency-specific—which, in essense, is the caveat that got criticized.

If the law is as the registrar explained it, Grubbs wrote, “the real issue is … the Virginia Code needs to change and the Legislature should take steps to rectify the situation.”

I know, we’re not in Virginia … but the daily in California’s capital wrote about it, so I think it’s a worthwhile exercise in critical thinking. Don’t take every campaign claim at face value, even if it validates your views.