The case for protecting out-of-state student voting rights

In an article published by The News and Observer on Dec. 31, 2016, former Gov. Pat McCrory discussed his loss in the recent election, saying, “I think where the real impact was [sic] the Supreme Court decision not allowing us to have voter ID, which allowed a lot of college students who live out of state to vote.” According to NCPIRG coalition partners in the North Carolina General Assembly, lawmakers are currently working on a bill to bar out-of-state students from voting. Regardless of the partisan politics surrounding this issue, a proposal to ban out-of-state student voting is alarming and illegal.

First and foremost, a bill of this kind would violate the North Carolina State Constitution. There is no question that out-of-state students are only temporary residents of the State; but the state constitution specifically mentions that permanent residency is not a requirement to vote. Article VI Section 2 of the North Carolina Constitution lays out basic voter qualifications, stating, “Any person who has resided in the State of North Carolina for one year and in the precinct, ward, or other election district for 30 days next preceding an election... shall be entitled to vote at any election held in this State.” According to the state constitution, an out-of-state student has a legitimate right to vote in North Carolina as long as they have resided here for one year.

To be clear, attaining legal residency for tuition purposes is a completely separate process; the requirements are more rigorous as students must prove their intent and ability to live in North Carolina beyond the scope of attending school. A student from another state is legally allowed to vote in North Carolina even if they are not considered residents for the purpose of tuition. This is an important distinction because virtually all students would qualify for in-state tuition if the requirements were the same as for voting eligibility, which would make higher out-of-state fees irrelevant.

Barring out-of-state student voting could also violate the federal Constitution. The Privileges and Immunities Clause in Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution states that, “the citizens of each state shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states.” Essentially, this clause prevents states from discriminating against citizens of different states; it is the reason why we have such basic freedoms as interstate travel in the U.S. By banning out-of-state students from voting, the North Carolina Legislature would be denying citizens of different states the right to vote despite their eligibility, arguably violating the Privileges and Immunities Clause. Violating federal law could result in reduced federal funding and increased legal costs from lawsuits, which would ultimately come out of the pockets of North Carolina taxpayers.

Even if we dismiss the discussion of constitutionality altogether, limiting voting rights for out-of-state students is economically irresponsible. Already mentioned is the possibility of increased cost to taxpayers, but more important is the risk of reducing the out-of-state student population and the revenue these students bring to the state. North Carolina is a hub of higher education with out-of-state students playing a significant role within the university systems and the economy in general. For example, the higher fees for out-of-state students help subsidize the UNC system and allow in-state students to attend our great universities at highly reduced costs. Out-of-state students bring more tourism; increasing business for our hotels and restaurants, while contributing to the labor supply and job market. It is puzzling that the Legislature would seek to pass legislation that would make the state less attractive to such an economically significant group.

The right to vote is the foundation for political action and involvement, so to ban out-of-state student voting is to strip these students of their most basic method of protecting their interests and voicing their opinions. Out-of-state students rely on the North Carolina state government to decide on issues that have tangible impacts on their lives. It is the state government that oversees the UNC system, budgets school funding, and sets tax policy. These students are future residents, investors, employers, and property owners for North Carolina, so to take away their right to vote ignores their significant role as constituents and stakeholders in State policies.

Chris Donahue and Ethan Peikes are NCPIRG students at UNC-Chapel Hill.