Point of View

Punishing college students and their parents with a 'democracy tax'

April 30, 2013 

Few politicians have the audacity to punish civic participation with higher taxes, but sponsors of Senate Bills 666 and 667 have done exactly that.

The proposed “democracy tax” would forbid North Carolinians from claiming a child who is in college as a dependent for tax purposes if that child registers to vote in her college community. State deductions range between $2,000 and $2,500 per dependent child. The problems with these bills are numerous.

The proposal discriminates against North Carolina residents exclusively. No other state punishes its residents for having children who register to vote in their college communities. Parents who live outside the state whose children attend college in North Carolina will face no additional tax burden. The bills target only North Carolinians – which seems like an odd way to treat those whose votes the bills’ sponsors will need for re-election.

If either bill passes, it is certain to face a constitutional challenge, and the state’s taxpayers would foot the bill to defend the law. The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1979 that discrimination against college students seeking to vote in their college communities violates the U.S. Constitution. SB 666 and SB 667 could not be clearer in their discriminatory intent.

Voting laws should encourage greater access to the ballot, but these bills would probably reduce North Carolina’s voting rates, which are 6 percent higher than the national average. More students would have to deal with the additional bureaucratic requirements of absentee voting by mail, which would cost some of them their votes. A higher percentage of mail ballots were voided last year than one-stop early voting ballots, which many students used.

Rules that make it more difficult to register and vote create an electorate that does not accurately represent the population. As a result, those rules increase the gulf between the needs of the people and the priorities of our elected representatives.

This is particularly important for college students, who are often first-time voters who need help navigating our electoral system. Research shows that one of the best predictors of whether a young person will vote in a given election is whether he voted in the previous election. Voting becomes a habit. A tax penalty for voting is precisely the kind of disincentive that will have a long-term negative effect on civic participation in North Carolina.

SB 666 and SB 667 also are based on a false premise: that college students are not real members of the community. Students pay tuition to an important local institution, live under the community’s laws, frequent local businesses, pay local sales taxes, work and volunteer in the surrounding area and live every other aspect of their daily lives in the college community. No other person who is new to the community and meets voting requirements would be penalized for registering to vote there.

The right of college students to vote is an illusion if the government can target them and their parents with financial penalties for exercising that right.

Dan Vicuna is coordinator of the Fair Elections Legal Network’s Campus Vote Project in Washington.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service