BY LINDA JEFFRIES
I grew up in central Pennsylvania and at seventeen, moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to go to college. The fall of my sophomore year was 1976 and I was thrilled to be voting for the first time, especially since it was a presidential election as well as the celebration of our country’s bicentennial. Chapel Hill, a liberal, college community, is in Orange County. At that time, the larger county was a more conservative area with Hillsborough as its county seat. Residents there were very unhappy with college students, particularly out-of-staters like myself participating in their elections.
My (now husband) boyfriend and I drove to the polling place in my little VW bug. (I don’t think anyone saw me coming but I had bought the car back home and it had a Pennsylvania plate.) When we walked in, he was ushered toward the booths to vote and I was stopped. My name along with thousands of others, had been challenged by a group from Hillsborough. (Supposedly, the daughter of legendary basketball coach Dean Smith was also on the roll.) I was directed to a table where I was “challenged” and asked questions such as: are all of your belongings here in North Carolina? Well, no, I was only eighteen and of course I had left a lot of stuff at home. I don’t remember all of the questions but the panel said no, I was not permitted to vote.
I left heartbroken. The next day, when the results were published, I found that the choices I would have made were largely the winners. So maybe it didn’t even matter that I couldn’t vote. If that sentiment had stuck with me I might not have ever voted again.
I don’t remember all of the details but out of the thousands of names that were challenged, only a handful of people were denied the right to vote that day. We’ve since seen many lawsuits and challenges that have sought to solidify a student’s right to vote where they go to college. Still, it doesn’t change what happened. I have been especially pleased to see the LWV reaching out to register high school students and in particular, helping them to navigate the steps needed so that they can vote even if they are away from home.