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I’m having an identity crisis.

Not psychologically of course, but in more of a geographic sense. For the first time in my life, I’m not sure which state I live in.

Sounds silly, right? Clearly I’m a resident of Pennsylvania … at least according to my voting records. If you ask the Internal Revenue Service though, I’m a resident of Maryland (where my parents live). And if you look at where I paid most of my taxes last year, you’d think I live in New York (where I worked over the summer).

As the primary election season, the 2010 Census and Tax Day roll around, more college students are facing this same identity crisis. And because laws defining residency vary so much from state to state, some students find it nearly impossible to determine which state they technically “reside” in.

Unfortunately, these jumbled residency regulations — some of which contradict each other — don’t just confuse college students. They also significantly hamper civic engagement. Rather than cut through a tangled web of residency laws, many students choose to disengage from civic life altogether.

“It’s a chronic problem across the country,” said Michael O’Loughlin, a Political Science professor at Salisbury University in Maryland. O’Loughlin has studied how residency regulations affect college students — especially when it comes to voting. “Some states have laws that are friendlier toward students, while other states have more restrictive laws,” he said. All these policies “involve interpretation [by local officials], which can vary as well.”

Sometimes, this lack of clarity has grave implications. Take the Census. Confusion over residency is one reason why college students have historically been one of the more frequently under-counted populations in the Census. And because the government allocates millions of dollars based on Census results, under-counting college students can result in significant funding shortfalls for communities with large student populations. College sophomore and New York native Ariella Messing admitted that at first, “it didn’t make sense” to her why she should be counted as a Pennsylvanian. Luckily, Penn has done a good job of clarifying that students need to fill out the form in Pennsylvania, the state where they reside most of the year.

Confusing residency rules can even stir up trouble during election seasons.

In a report he helped author on the subject, O’Loughlin found that state laws and unclear interpretation of those laws discourage or even prevent many students from “establishing legal residency in their college communities sufficient for voting rights.” In other words, confusion sometimes results in disenfranchisement.

Unfortunately, it’s still unclear how to solve the problem, because each state has a lot of power in setting up its own definition of residency. O’Loughlin told me that while more uniformity in the rules would definitely help, it would probably require some action by the federal government.

I have a suggestion: just for starters, it would be nice if state governments paid more attention to how their rules affect college students.

When I was filling out my tax forms, I called government tax information hotlines in both Pennsylvania and Maryland. A nice lady in the Pennsylvania office told me that I was a resident of Pennsylvania because I vote here and live here most of the year. But a government official in Maryland told me exactly the opposite: even though I had lived in Maryland for less than two months in 2009, I was still considered a permanent resident of the state, in part because of my Maryland Driver’s License.

Exasperated at having to file a tax return in yet another state, I pleaded with him: “Is there any way I can stop being a Maryland resident?” He laughed a little.

Rules are rules, I guess, however unclear they may be.

Ashwin Shandilya is a Wharton senior from New Market, Md. He is the former Marketing Manager and Editorial Page Editor of the DP. His e-mail address is Penn vs Sword appears on Thursdays.

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