Montravias King, a senior at Elizabeth City State University, attempted this summer to run for his city council in Elizabeth City in Pasquotank County, North Carolina. On August 13, the county’s board of elections blocked his campaign, arguing that his residence in a university dormitory did not meet the residence requirements needed to run for office in the county. The case was then appealed to the North Carolina Board of Elections, where the county’s ruling was overturned and King was deemed eligible to run.
“The fact that you are a student does not mean you are not entitled to participate in the political process,” said Guy-Uriel Charles, professor of law and founding director of the Duke Law Center on Law, Race and Politics. “If you are a resident, then you are entitled."
King presented his case—counseled by legal representation from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice—to the state board, which overturned the county ruling on the grounds that King's residence as a student in the county qualifies him to run for office despite his residence in a dormitory.
“This case had the potential to set a negative precedent had he lost his appeal," said Justin Waddell, the spokesperson and communications director for King's campaign. Students would have been disenfranchised across the state as far as voting rights.”
King is now officially on the ballot for the Oct. 8 county election in Pasquotank's fourth ward.
Waddell explained that the main force persuading the county board of elections to rule King ineligible was Peter Gilbert, chairman of the Pasquotank Republican Party, who claimed that a dorm room was a only temporary residence.
King resided in Greene County prior to attending college in Elizabeth City, according to the ruling released by the state board of elections.
“His argument was that Montravius did not have residency in that area due to the fact that he stayed in a dormitory,” Waddell said. “There was debate about the use of the word ‘permanent.’”
Clare Barnett, a staff attorney for SCSJ who represented King before the board, said that the ruling stated that federal and state law allows for students to run for local office using their dorm address as proof of residence, and thus the county board's decision was illegal.
She emphasized that students' right to vote in the town they attend college in was highlighted by this particular case.
A bill introduced in the North Carolina House of Representatives in April attempted to eliminate a tax deduction given to students' parents if the student registered to vote in the county they attend college in. The bill did not pass beyond the committee stage.
“The ruling of the local board happened to undermine students’ ability to vote across the state,” Barnett said. “It was great that they ruled in our favor.”
Charles confirmed this notion, explaining that being able to run for office and being able to vote are inseparable qualities as they are defined by state and federal court precedents.
“It’s a two-step anaysis—is the person entitled to vote in the jurisdiction?” Charles said. “If they’re entitled to vote then they’re entitled to run. King may be a student, but because he is doesn’t mean he’s not entitled to run.”
Michael Perry, director of the Durham Board of Elections, affirmed that any student living in a dormitory in Durham county is eligible to run for city council and other elected office if they are eligible to vote and meet the age requirement of 21.
Perry specifically cited North Carolina Statute 163-57, which outlines the definitions of residence in relation to voting rights.
“So long as a student intends to make the student's home in the community where the student is physically present for the purpose of attending school while the student is attending school and has no intent to return to the student's former home after graduation, the student may claim the college community as the student's domicile,” the statute reads in Section 11.
Waddell also referenced the 1979 U.S. Supreme Court case, Symm v. United States, which held that college students have the right to vote in the district of their dormitory under the 14th, 15th and 26th amendments to the U.S. Constitutions.
“It lists very clearly that a student has the right to register where they go to school,” Perry said. “It’s very, very clear.”
Derek Rhodes, Duke Student Government vice president for Durham and regional affairs, said having a university student serve on the Durham city council would not cause a significant alteration in Duke-Durham relations.
“I’m not sure it would change our relations in the sense that the city council as it currently stands does a great job [interacting with] NC Central, NC Tech,” Rhodes said. “It’s not rare for city council to reach out to Duke administrators or the university as a whole to get their input.”
Perry said that the election for three ward-specific positions on the Durham City Council will be held on November 5 at the same time as the mayoral election.