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Signs at polls warning Idaho college students about voting draw legal complaint

Tim Hurst, Idaho chief deputy secretary of state, in his office at the state Capitol on Tuesday with copies of signs posted at polls in Rexburg displayed on his desktop computer screen.

Signs at the polls in Rexburg warning students in the college town, home of BYU-Idaho, against voting there “simply because you failed to register and vote at your true domicile” were taken down Tuesday afternoon, after the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho charged that they violated the federal Voting Rights Act.

Chief Deputy Idaho Secretary of State Tim Hurst said, “They never turned anybody away. I talked to the county clerk over there today.” Nevertheless, the signs, which were headed in big letters at the top, “STUDENTS,” were taken down mid-afternoon.

Hurst said the signs originated with the Secretary of State’s office a decade or more ago, but he wasn’t aware of any other counties that were still posting them. “They were displayed just about everywhere a number of years ago,” he said. Hurst maintained the signs accurately reflect Idaho law about establishing residency. However, he said, “If you’ve been a resident for 30 days, you’re entitled to vote.”

“When I talk to students about it, I say, ‘Where do you consider home?’” Hurst said. “If home is Rexburg, they should register and vote there.”

The signs said, in part, “As a student, you should not be registering and voting in your college locale simply because you failed to register and vote at your true domicile. Registering to vote is a serious matter which should only be done after proper reflection. It should be noted that there is no federal right to vote anywhere in the United States for the office of President. State laws control registration and voting and State residency requirements must be met.”

Underneath that, in bold-face, the signs stated, “We need and want all students to vote at their legal domicile,” followed by a legal citation.

Kathy Griesmyer of the ACLU Idaho said, “We did hear from at least four or five different voters about getting questioned specifically about their status as a student, then repeatedly questioned about, ‘you have to be sure how this impacts your scholarships.’ The way that it’s being presented and questioned to students at the polls is I think really meant to create an environment of confusion and intimidation.”

The same language used in the signs also appears on the Idaho Secretary of State’s “idahovotes.gov” voter information website, under the heading, “Student & Residency Voting.”

Griesmyer said when she first contacted the Madison County clerk about the signs, she was told that they didn’t originate with the clerk’s office, but were simply posted by poll workers in various precincts on their own. That, too, raises questions, Griesmyer said.

“She said that she was going to investigate and agreed that those signs should likely be pulled,” Griesmyer said.

Griesmyer also raised concerns about the wording on the signs about there being “no federal right to vote.” “We have the right to vote under the First and 14th Amendments,” she said, “so that’s a constitutional concern there.”

The ACLU of Idaho and its national affiliate sent a formal, legal demand letter to Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney on Tuesday, requesting that all such signs be taken down, and that the language be removed from the idahovotes.gov website.

“The signs at issue in Madison County at the very least ‘attempt to intimidate’ certain classes of voters,” the letter stated. “It is our understanding that your office indicated that these signs were important so that certain individuals would not alter their residence for purposes of scholarships and the like. While providing voter education to help individuals determine their proper residence is certainly important, the way to do it is not through confusing, misleading, and intimidating signs posted in polling locations, that may dissuade eligible voters from exercising their rights.”

Hurst said he offered to work with the group to soften the wording.

“I hope the secretary will agree that that information is misguided and should come down from their website,” Griesmyer said. “And we would be happy to work with them for some clarification regarding student voter rights.”

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