Voting matters to Katherine West. She registered to vote on the day she turned 18 in Kentucky, where her parents live. She still has her first “I voted” sticker.
When she enrolled at Furman University, West wanted to vote in Greenville, the place she considers home now, even though she lives in on the university’s campus.
“I love it here, and I want to be more involved in local politics because of how important it is,” West said. “And I want to be able to vote here.”
When West mailed her voter registration in to the office of Greenville County Voter Registration and Elections, she received a questionnaire in return. It had 11 questions that the county office said would help the local voter registration board decide whether West was qualified to vote in Greenville.
West refused to answer the questionnaire because she considers it invasive and unlawful. It had questions about where she banked, how involved she was in the community, where her vehicle was registered and where her parents live.
“It didn’t seem like something that I should have to fill out,” West said. “Something that my off-campus peers don’t have to fill out. I didn’t want to be treated differently, and I was.”
Greenville County’s voter registration board sends the questionnaires only to college students who live on campus at colleges in the county. This includes students at Bob Jones University, North Greenville University and Greenville Technical College in addition to Furman. It also may affect some students at The Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville.
West is one of three Furman students who have asked a judge to make Greenville stop sending the questionnaires.
Greenville is the only S.C. county that uses the questionnaires as an extra step to verify whether on-campus students truly are residents.
The questionnaires can discourage students from trying to register and, if not completed to the voter board’s satisfaction, can deny a student’s registration, according to the student’s lawsuit.
On Thursday, the case went to court so Judge Robin Stilwell could decide whether or not to put a temporary injunction in place to put a stop – immediately but possibly temporarily – to the questionnaires, allowing students to register to vote by the deadline to vote in the November general election. The full case would be heard at a later date.
West said this is her only shot to be able to vote in her first presidential election. If she’s not allowed to vote in Greenville, she’s already missed the deadline to vote absentee in Kentucky, where her parents live.
In a hearing held at the Greenville County Courthouse, plaintiffs’ attorney Steven Buckingham said the county is unlawfully discriminating against a specific class of people, a violation of the rights of equal protection and to vote in the S.C. Constitution.
Attorney Nick Nicholson, representing Greenville County and Conway Belangia, director of Greenville County Voter Registration and Elections, said the board is complying with a 1973 federal court order that directed Greenville to use the questionnaire. That order has never been challenged, and two S.C. attorney general’s opinions reaffirmed use of the questionnaires, Nicholson said.
“They feel like they’re compelled to take the actions that they’ve been taking,” Nicholson said. “We’d love for these students to vote, but the board feels it has done its duty.”
Nicholson filed a motion to toss the case based on technicalities. He said West didn’t provide a complete application because she didn’t check two boxes affirming that she is at least 18 years old and a resident. Another plaintiff, Benjamin Longnecker, hadn’t filled out a voter registration application.
Buckingham said the voter board never told West her application wasn’t completed, adding she had answered both of those questions elsewhere on the form. He called the argument the “most trivial of trivialities.”
Longnecker didn’t file an application because the county office told him he needed to register in Knoxville, Tenn., where his parents live. The Greenville office never offered him an application, he said.
“That is an echo of a time that should be long past, and it is a shame that we’d be here in 2016, and folks are being told flat-out that they can’t vote where they live,” Longnecker said.
Nicholson agreed Longnecker should not have been told he couldn’t register. “That’s a problem,” he said. “That shouldn’t have happened.”
In a twist, Kristina Jones Catoe, attorney for the State Election Commission, one of the defendants in the case, argued on the behalf of the plaintiffs.
Catoe said state election law “only requires the applicant to have a present intention to remain in the community.”
She said the state had told the county many times that its policy was unlawful. It wrote a letter to the county board after the Furman students filed their lawsuit, telling it to stop sending the questionnaires. Greenville responded with its own letter saying the state was incorrect and asked it to withdraw its letter.
Catoe said state law tells voter registration boards to register the applicants, then if they have questions about a resident’s address, to ask them afterward. Greenville’s office is not doing that, she said.
“We want all eligible citizens to be registered to vote,” Catoe said.
Stilwell said he will review the case before issuing a decision on a temporary injunction. But, he told the plaintiffs, “I’ll be as quick as I can.”