Point of View

Dorm residency issue is settled NC law

August 20, 2013 

The decision of the Pasquotank County Board of Elections to reject the city council candidacy of an Elizabeth City State University student because he lives in a dorm raises again the issue of student voting in college towns.

His candidacy in a primarily black ward was challenged by a white political party chairman. It has been settled law in North Carolina that students could vote where they go to school, specifically including a dorm, as long as they do not intend to return to their parents’ home to live after graduation. That was the unanimous N.C. Supreme Court holding in the 1979 Lloyd v. Babb case in which petitioners challenged 7,000 Orange County voters and in the 1972 case of Hall v. Wake County concerning Meredith freshman Kathy Hall, who lived in a dorm. The General Assembly in the 1980s wrote the holding of the Lloyd case into a statute.

I’ve been following this issue for over 40 years after working with Kathy Hall as she prepared for her 1971 Board of Elections hearing, and I was an intervening defendant in the Lloyd case. I pored through the several-foot-tall stack of challenges of all dorm and apartment residents in 1977 and discovered that even Dean Smith’s residence was challenged.

Although the census since 1950 (on which political representation and many state and federal funding formulas are based) has counted all dorm residents as residents where they attend school, the issue really meant nothing until the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971. Since the local option sales tax was enacted in 1974, students pay local sales taxes, and those in apartments pay property tax through their rent. They are affected by local regulations, and in many cases their presence is the only reason the town is more than a stoplight and gas station.

Montravias King went to Elizabeth City State University in 2009 as a freshman and has lived year-round there since then, spending academic years in the same dorm and summer sessions in other university housing. He has voted six times in Pasquotank County, volunteered in the community and has held several jobs there. His driver’s license address is his dorm room.

Post-graduation in 2014, King plans to attend Regent University Law School in Virginia Beach and to commute from Elizabeth City. What a model citizen. On July 19, he filed to run for a city council seat. Yet by a 2-1 vote, the county board of elections last week tossed him off the ballot, saying a dorm room could not be a permanent residence, flying totally in the face of the law.

The decision was shameful. It’s as if the clock is being turned back by decades.

There have been just four students elected to local office in North Carolina in more than 40 years: me (Chapel Hill, 1973), Mark Chilton (Chapel Hill, 1991), Andy Ball (Boone, 2009) and Derwin Montgomery (a Winston-Salem State University dorm resident elected to the Winston-Salem city council in 2009), hardly a threat to the Republic.

While students have been voting in college towns since the ’70s, never more than half actually did, and they were disproportionally graduate students. Statistics I have looked at seem to indicate that black HBCU students are more likely to vote in their college towns.

My son’s fiancée is in the UNC-Chapel Hill eight-year M.D./Ph.D. program. Should she be voting at her parents’ Charlotte address where she hasn’t lived for six years?

Gerry Cohen of Raleigh is a Special Counsel at the N.C. General Assembly.

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