Voter Awareness Initiative discovers Baltimore County Board of Elections distributing misinformation

The Voter Awareness Initiative, a project taken on by the Student Government Association, College Democrats, College Republicans and People United, officially began in Nov. 2015 when joint legislation to approve the initiative was introduced into the SGA Senate. According to the original proposal, it was created because “SGA officers share a desire to register as many UMBC students as possible to vote and inform them about public issues.”

While this may have been the initial intention, the students partaking in the initiative would be mislead and misinformed numerous times.

The initiative was the brainchild of Vanessa Barksdale, a junior at UMBC, in the beginning of the fall semester of 2015. She said, “I feel like innocent people get taken advantage of and manipulated everyday. Not because they are dumb, but because we don’t pay attention. Voter awareness is a way to get students to pay attention.”

In order make her concept a reality, she enlisted the help of Sarah Lilly, assistant speaker of the Senate. Lilly drafted the official legislation for the initiative which, once unanimously passed on Dec. 1, 2015, provided Barksdale with $400 in funding.

“Senate took on the role of being the communication aspect, whereas the Department of Government and Institutional Affairs became ‘event planners’ by planning voting registration drives,” Lilly said.

In order to host voting registration drives, though, the Baltimore County Board of Elections must come and administer a voter registration volunteer certification course in order to certify volunteers to conduct them. They came in Oct. 2015. Overall the course was a success, although certain pieces of information dispersed by the board did not sit well with several students.

During the course, the BCEB stated that students cannot register to vote with their campus address for a multitude of reasons, including a potential loss of financial aid/scholarships, having to change license and registration and having potential errors when filing taxes.

This is relevant because polling places are usually determined by population distribution, based on voter registration addresses. For years, many individuals have been attempting to make UMBC a polling station, to no avail. The issue was of concern to students involved in the VIA.

So, in regards to voting registration, when the BCBE informed students that they were not allowed to claim UMBC as their place of residence despite the fact that many individuals spend more than eight months a year on campus, student were puzzled.

No clarification would be given until the initiative picked back up again in the spring semester of 2016.

Several participants of the VIA went to National Youth Feminist Leadership Conference in Arlington Virginia, from March 12-14.

“At a workshop we went to, the panelist told us that basically everything the BCBE had told us was incorrect. They told us that Symm v. United States was direct proof that students can use their campus address for voting purposes and that tax code doesn’t penalize students for registering at their campus address.”

“We then started coordinating with Mike Burns, the national director of the campus vote project, who was a panelist that day,” said Lilly.

“He told us that we should launch our own investigation on how the BCBE is misinforming college students, and find out exactly what they are saying in their dialogue with prospective voters.”

Following Burns’ instructions, Lilly proceeded to call the BCBE. She said, “I spoke with Dana Williams regarding registering to vote at your campus address. She said, in a few different ways, that students cannot register to vote at their campus address because of taxes, financial aid, scholarships, etc. Stating multiple times ‘you are staying on campus, not living on campus.’ I also spoke with a few others at the BOE, but they did not give their names to me. All said similar things.”

Lilly relayed this message back to Burns, who took it upon himself to call the Maryland State Board of Elections. Essentially, they told Burns that when it came to information on voter registration, everything the BCBE had been telling students was factually incorrect. They promised Burns they would speak with the BCBE to resolve the issue.

Lilly believes this occurrence is indicative of a general trend of “systematic suppression” directed towards college students. She reasoned, “To me, this is systematic suppression of students because we are not being allowed to register to vote at a place where we live the majority of the year, even though it is our legal right to do so, which ultimately prevents students from having a say in local politics.”

Burns, however, believes the term of “systematic suppression” may be slightly hyperbolic, due to the fact that the BCBE was “trying to get students to vote via absentee ballot.” He added, though, “But that’s not their choice to make. That’s the students’ choice to make.”

Burns concluded, “I think we see this issue of students having a hard time getting accurate information about their residency status in a number of places. Sometimes its due to individuals like those at the BCBE that interpret the law in a way that is actually inaccurate, and then provide that incorrect information to others.”

As of now, if a college student in Baltimore County were to attempt to list their campus residence as their place of residency, they would be allowed to do so.