May 24, 2004
Commissioners Patricia Ann Di Spirito and Angela Pedone Longo
Oneida County Board of Elections
Union Station, 321 Main Street, 3rd Floor
Utica, New York 13501
Dear Commissioners Di Spirito and Longo:
We understand that the Oneida County Board of Elections has been encouraging college students to register and vote not as residents of their college communities but as residents of the communities in which their parents live. Indeed, it would appear from a form letter that the Board of Elections has prepared that the Board interprets Section 5-104 of the New York Election Law as erecting a prohibition, or at the least a strong presumption, against students voting as residents of their college communities. Such an interpretation of Section 5-104, however, misreads that statutory provision and ignores well-settled federal and state court precedent in New York.
Under that precedent, three principles are clear: First, local officials cannot deny an applicant the right to register to vote as a resident of a college community merely because the applicant is a student or because the applicant lives in a college dormitory. Williams v. Salerno, 792 F.2d 323, 328 (2d Cir. 1986). Second, no presumption against student claims of residency can be applied by election officials, who are obligated to apply the same substantive standard for determining voting residency to students and non-students alike. Auerbach v. Rettaliata, 765 F.2d 350, 353 (2d Cir. 1985). Third, the “only constitutionally permissible test” for voting residence, “is one which focuses on the individual’s present intention and does not require him [or her] to pledge allegiance for an indefinite future. The objective is to determine the place which is the center of the individual’s life now, the locus of primary concern.” Ramey v. Rockefeller, 348 F.Supp. 780, 788 (E.D.N.Y. 1972).
Thus, if the Ramey v. Rockefeller standard for determining voting residence were to be fairly and uniformly applied, the Board of Elections would be required to permit most college students seeking to vote as residents of their college communities to do so. This conclusion rests upon the fact that most students live principally in their college communities. They eat, sleep and carry out the daily activities of their lives in those communities; they are often deeply involved in part-time employment, vocational pursuits and community activities within the college town; and they are far more affected by the acts and omissions of local officials in their college towns than they are by local officials in some distant parental home in which they are no longer living and to which they have no intention of returning to live. Moreover, students pay local sales tax and are included as residents of their college communities for purposes of legislative apportionment and the U.S. Census. In short, we believe that a fair evaluation of the “locus of primary concern” for college students would, in most instances, require that college students be permitted to vote as residents of their college communities.
We therefore urge the Board of Elections to withdraw the form letter that it has sent to students applying to vote as residents of their college communities and that it comply with constitutional standards governing the right of college students to vote.
We look forward to your reply. We would be happy to discuss this matter with your counsel should you have any questions in this regard.
New York Civil Liberties Union
Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law
New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG)
Click here to read the related NYCLU press release.