Three Furman University students have filed a lawsuit in Greenville County that challenges the county election commission’s handling of voter registration for college students who choose their school address as their legal residence.
The students claim a longstanding policy created by Greenville County Board of Voter Registration and Elections goes beyond state election law and has thwarted efforts of Furman University students for years who want to register to vote in the location where they live for much of the year.
The policy created by the county voter registration board has served to depress the vote of Furman students for decades and differs from the voter registration rules in many other South Carolina counties, said Glen Halva-Neubauer, a Furman political science professor who is familiar with the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims students who list an address on the university campus are denied voter registration unless they complete an additional form created by the Greenville County Board of Voter Registration and Elections that includes 11 questions, some of which ask students to list where they hold bank accounts, what off-campus ties they have to the community, where they work and where their vehicle is registered.
That questionnaire, the lawsuit alleges, creates an undue hardship for students and goes beyond state law. The policy is “peculiar to Greenville County” and the students are treated “as a suspect class” whose sworn testimony on the voter registration applications are discounted, the lawsuit alleges.
Another student claimed that when he tried to register to vote in-person at the voter registration office at County Square, he was denied and told he must vote absentee using the location where his parents reside.
The lawsuit, filed in Greenville County’s 13th Judicial Circuit on Wednesday, names Conway Belangia, director of voter registration and elections, along with the Greenville County Board of Voter Registration and Elections, the South Carolina State Election Commission and Marci Andino, the state election commission’s executive director, as defendants.
Belangia, Greenville County spokesman Bob Mihalic and officials with the state election commission couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday evening.
The lawsuit asks for the county’s policies to be declared impermissible and asks for a temporary injunction to stop the policies immediately. It also calls for Andino and the State Election Commission to ensure the county board of registrations implements a corrective-action plan to ensure the voter registration rights of students.
“Furman encourages its students to participate in the political process and fully supports their right to vote in the community they call home for four years,” Furman University President Elizabeth Davis said in a statement to The Greenville News on Thursday.
Katherine West, Benjamin Longnecker and Sulaiman Ahmad, all Furman students, are listed as the plaintiffs.
West, a 19-year-old sophomore at Furman, said she moved to Greenville from Northern Kentucky and due to her interest in Greenville and South Carolina politics, wants to vote in Greenville, according to an affidavit.
“I call Greenville home, and I want to vote,” West said in the affidavit.
West said she mailed her voter registration information to the county voter registration office and received a response letter from the office.
“I find these questions incredibly invasive,” West said. “I refuse to answer them.”
The letter, dated Sept. 2, said her request to register had been received but that the board of registration “must determine your intention as to your official legal residence.”
The letter says Federal Court and the State Attorney General “have ruled that students, especially those boarded in college facilities, must meet the test of intention to move legal residence to that area.”
Ahmad, a Furman student who is coordinating a voter registration drive at Furman, said in an affidavit that Belangia told him he should have Furman students vote absentee rather than file as Greenville County voters. Ahmad said he’s had to tell Furman students that the county won’t allow them to register to vote in Greenville.
“Furman ranks in the bottom tier of colleges in terms of voting rate nationally,” Ahmad said.
In the 2012 presidential election, similar colleges to Furman had voter participation rates nearly double Furman’s 24 percent, Ahmad said. That is due to the county’s voter registration policies that colleges located elsewhere don’t face, he said.
Susan Dunn, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, is one of three attorneys representing the students.
“Basically the board of elections in Greenville appears to take the position that on-campus students shouldn’t be allowed to vote in Greenville,” Dunn said.
Other South Carolina counties don’t interpret the law like that, Dunn said. She said students at Benedict College or the College of Charleston, as examples, face no further questions than those posed on their voter registration forms.
While election law allows election commissions to review voter registrations for validity, it doesn’t permit treating an entire class of people – in this case college students who have moved to Greenville — differently, Dunn said.
A hearing for a motion for preliminary injunction is scheduled for Oct. 6.