In response to a FOIA request made to the State Board of Elections for all written communications, e-mail messages and dates of conference calls, between September 1 and September 25, regarding student registration, the following was discovered:
- As students began arriving in August to begin the new school years at Virginia's universities and colleges, they were met with a significant and organized effort to convince them to register to vote in Virginia for this Presidential election.
- These registration efforts appear to have been active in misleading students by telling them that declaring legal residence and domicile in Virginia – an absolute requirement to be qualified to vote (and thus to be able to register in Virginia) – would NOT cause them to have to apply for a Virginia driver's license or register a vehicle that they own here, as well as potentially more significant changes that a student would have to make. Virginia law is clear in regard to a driver's license and we believe as to other issues as well.
- Many students, upon discovering the other obligations they were taking on by declaring themselves residents of Virginia, asked to have their applications for voter registration returned or destroyed.
- At the same time, local registrars, well versed in the requirements for legally registering to vote in Virginia, sought to fulfill their responsibility to determine the eligibility of all new applicants, student or not. Local registrars began to receive phone calls, e-mail messages and visits from attorneys and others associated with the Obama campaign and related voter registration groups. These contacts appear to have been intended to intimidate registrars and their employees, with a goal of getting registrars to accept voter registration applications at face value and not try to actively determine if the applicant met the qualifications to be registered or not.
- E-mail messages obtained under FOIA indicate that an attorney, who described himself as the contact for the Obama campaign for student voter registration issues, began pressing the State Board of Elections some time in August to contact registrars and advise them not to tell students about any potential obligations under Virginia law or local ordinance them might be taking on by declaring themselves a resident of Virginia.
- It is also clear that, prior to Labor Day, most registrars in localities with significant (college) student populations felt confident in their responsibilities to use the State Board-approved questionnaire as a guide to determining if the student actually qualified to register in Virginia or not.
- However, the Obama campaign continued to push for the State Board of Elections to clarify for registrars what they could and could not do.
- On September 2, a meeting of the policy staff of the State Board of Elections was convened to try to determine what clarifications should be issued to registrars.
- On September 3, James Alcorn of the SBE notified the Obama campaign attorney that the State Board of Elections would be "revising new guidelines" and distributing them that same week.
- The proposed draft "clarifications" and accompanying changes to the SBE website appear to have been circulated to a group of registrars for comments. The final e-mail message, distributed to registrars on September 8 did not incorporate some of the more important comments, such as the fact that registrars are allowed by law to ask questions in determining an applicant's eligibility.
- The release of this e-mail message apparently created some controversy because the following day Wayne Turnage, Governor Kaine's Chief of Staff, issued instructions directly to Secretary Nancy Rodriguez to draft a new letter to all registrars. General guidelines were given as to the letter's contents, with further instructions that the draft be circulated to several members of the Governor's staff for review. It is implied, but not clear from the e-mail trail, that the Chief of Staff and Secretary of the SBE had had a conversation about the matter prior to this e-mail directive. What was said we do not, of course, know.
- A draft letter was prepared and apparently circulated because the Governor's Chief of Staff returned it by e-mail to Secretary Rodriguez with his personal edits. One of the edits – indicating that it was not up to the registrar to prove that an applicant for registration was a resident - was clearly of concern to the SBE staff, as noted in the e-mail trail. This edit was not included in the final letter issued to registrars.
- It is clear that the Governor's office was right in the middle of these discussions and part of the process that pressured local registrars to be less active in determining the legal residency of applicants for voter registration.
- In late September, the SBE began responding to inquiries about residency using the following language: "We recently updated this information to make clear that it is the student who is in control of the determination." This is a clear shift in policy and practice for the SBE, one made by the Governor's office and SBE staff, not in full public view as would have been proper.
Significantly, there is not one e-mail message during this period expressing concern over the Obama campaign's efforts to pressure students into registering, and very little support shown to registrars by either the SBE or the Governor's office.
In Part 3, we will begin looking at the documents obtained through FOIA.