Is Williamsburg Giving College Students The Shaft?

Coeds say local government doesn't represent them, won't have them.

Election years are usually accompanied by pleas for young people to get more involved with government. But several students at the College of William and Mary recently learned that you can't fight city hall — or, at least, the registrar.

Four W&M students — Travis Luther Lowe, Serene Alami, Seth Saunders and Robert Forrest — stirred controversy in February when they declared their intention to run for city council in Williamsburg, Virginia, the small town where the college is located.

Attempting to fight local laws that they say unfairly target college students (one prohibits more than three unrelated people from living together, for instance, interfering with many students' off-campus living situations), the four decided to take matters into their own hands, announcing their intent to run for the three open seats on the five-seat council.


William and Mary students fight for their right to vote

"It became evident last semester that students really needed to step up in the community, because the current administration was passing ordinances that were very anti-student," Alami, a 20-year-old junior, said. In addition to the questions surrounding off-campus rentals, they cite inadequate parking, high-penalty noise ordinances and the designation of Williamsburg's three bars as "delis" to preserve the city's image as a tourist town.

College students comprise half of Williamsburg's official population of 12,000. But shortly after Saunders, Lowe, Alami and Forrest announced their candidacies in the May 4 election, R. Wythe Davis, the city's voter registrar, refused to register them to vote, essentially stonewalling their campaigns.

According to Davis, the students could not establish residency in Williamsburg (which is based in part on where the resident's cars are registered and if their parents claim them as dependents), making them ineligible to vote under Virginia law. In many college towns, students are permitted to vote with their campus address.

"There is a checklist that we use for anybody we think may have a nonpermanent address," Davis said. "It's not just students, by the way, it's anybody in temporary housing."

With the dust nearly settled, only Forrest has managed to register and make it onto the election roster — but he had to drop out of school, move off campus and get a local job to make it happen.

However, other W&M students say they encountered relatively little resistance when they attempted to register prior to the candidacy announcements from their fellow students. Peter Park registered with ease in September, though he's from out of town and used his campus address on his voter application. "I put my dorm address," he said. "That's my abode, that's where I live, I thought that's pretty logical."

After losing an initial court bid to vote, Lowe (a 21-year-old junior from Arkansas) was deemed eligible by a judge to vote in Williamsburg and run for a council seat, based upon his six-year contract with the Virginia National Guard. But the same judge rejected a petition from Alami, whose parents live in Roanoke, Virginia; she also has more tenuous ties to Williamsburg. Saunders missed the deadline to appeal the initial ruling.

But Lowe's success was short-lived. Within days, he was informed by the registrar's office that only 100 of the 152 voter signatures he submitted to get on the ballot were valid, largely because the people circulating the candidacy petitions must also be registered or eligible to register in Williamsburg. Because Alami and other unregistered or ineligible students had gathered some of his signatures, Lowe was thwarted again. He took his case to the city's Electoral Board but was turned away, rendering his bid for the election all but over, despite his pledges to continue.

"It's ironic that all these adults say, 'Yeah, it's a shame students don't get involved,' " Lowe said. "Well, whenever they do try to get involved, we see what we're facing."