A judge on Friday ordered the Greenville County Board of Voter Registration and Elections to immediately stop issuing questionnaires to college students who register to vote using their on-campus address.
Judge Robin Stilwell granted a temporary injunction to two Furman University students who had tried to register to vote in Greenville County using their university residence halls as their address, saying that not issuing the students relief from the county’s policy would cause irreparable harm to the students by denying their right to vote in the 2016 General Election.
Stilwell ordered the defendants in the case — the board’s director Conway Belangia and the Board itself — to “immediately and temporarily cease and desist from requiring the additional questionnaire from on-campus residents of Greenville County colleges, schools, and universities.”
The county’s Board of Voter Registration and Elections had a longstanding policy of issuing an 11-question form to every student who registers to vote using an on-campus address. The questionnaires had been issued to students from Furman, Bob Jones University, North Greenville University and Greenville Technical College, all colleges with on-campus housing.
The questionnaires were used to verify whether a college student living on campus truly considered it their legal residence. They asked questions about where the students banked, what community activities they are involved in, if they’ve voted elsewhere in the past and where their parents live.
The decision comes after three Furman University students sued the county board, Belangia, the State Election Commission and its director Marci Andino, saying the questionnaires the county has used since at least the early 1970s are unlawful and intrusive. Two of those students, Katherine West and Ben Longnecker, had tried to register to vote in Greenville but had not been successful.
A third plaintiff, Sulaiman Ahmad, said he’s in charge of a voter registration contest on campus. Furman has historically had among the lowest number of students register to vote among colleges nationwide. Ahmad said he believes the challenges to register in Greenville County were at fault for the low numbers.
In the order, which took effect immediately, Judge Stilwell said if he denied the students’ requested relief, they “would forever lose their right to exercise a highly prized and fundamental democratic right to vote in this particular election.”
But in granting the relief, the order said, “the Greenville Board will simply be required to register voters in accordance with its prescribed duties.”
When West, a politically active student who hoped to vote in her first presidential election, found out about the judge’s decision, she said she cried.
“I’m very pleased with the outcome,” West said. “I’ve cried a few times already. Moving forward, we need to move for a permanent injunction to ensure this never happens again.”
The judge’s order shows that the students’ case does have a likelihood of success based on the arguments presented in an initial hearing Thursday, but the injunction is temporary, pending a final court hearing on the full case or a pre-trial agreement between the two parties.
Whether the county continues to fight the decision in court will be up to the voter registration board, said Greenville County Attorney Mark Tollison.
“I believe the board welcomes this new ruling and will make the needed adjustments to comply with the injunction,” Tollison said.
Belangia said his office had stopped issuing the questionnaires on Friday and would also approve several pending voter registration applications that had been sitting in limbo, some of them for months.
As for West and Longnecker’s applications?
“Their cards have already been put in the mail,” Belangia said.
This will now be the first time Longnecker will be able to vote, said Steven Buckingham, the students’ attorney.
“The right to vote is fundamental and sacred,” Buckingham said. “So when you go to court on an issue like this and you’re able to prevail, this is as close as a secular religious experience as an American can have.”
Susan Dunn, an attorney with the ACLU of South Carolina who also represented the students’ case, said the injunction brings the Greenville County Election Commission up to date.
“They had been playing based upon a playbook that was outdated,” Dunn said. “I don’t think there were any bad intentions but the law had changed and I don’t think they’d figured that out.”
The county had held to a 1973 federal court order — also based on a lawsuit by Furman students — in which the judge ordered them to continue to use questionnaires to verify students’ residency. That order had never been challenged in court, county officials have said.
But the United States Supreme Court had affirmed a case out of Texas, called Symm vs. U.S., that said a registrar couldn’t treat college students differently than any other applicants. Stilwell cited that case in his injunction order, and said it may be a “controlling” case that should determine the law of the land.
The case highlighted a continuing struggle between the State Election Commission and county election boards over who makes voter registration policies.
Since the 1895 state Constitution, county boards have been able to make their own election policies, said Brett Bursey, a voting rights advocate with the SC Progressive Network. But a 2014 amendment to state election law gave authority to the State Election Commission to rein in county policies that differed from state law or policies, he said.
This case, Bursey said, is the first real challenge to the new state law.
“For a long time these state boards had really had the ability to make up the rules for voter registration in each county,” Dunn said. “We’ve really just gotten to a point where that’s not good practice.”
Furman students said they planned to hold a last-minute registration drive on campus this weekend.
With voter registration deadlines extended until midnight Sunday for online, faxed or emailed voter registration applications, and until Tuesday for mailed applications, West said they’ll register as many people as possible.
For many of those students, this would be their first chance to vote.
“Now I’ll be able to get very involved in local politics and be able to really make a difference and feel like my vote is counting in my home county,” she said. “Just saying that out loud makes me very happy.”