ESSEX — A small group of Essex residents are formally challenging the voter registrations of more than 100 people, contesting their Essex voters's residency claims, primarily on Conomo Point.
A newly formed citizens' group calling itself the The Essex Clean Elections Fund provided these names of people they say are registered voters in Essex, yet do not live in the town year-round, have full-time residences elsewhere, and, in at least two confirmed cases as of Wednesday, are also registered to vote elsewhere, and as far away as California.
According to the San Mateo County Elections Office in California and the Essex Town Clerk, a Dorothea and Harlan Wendell, both in their late 80s and permanent residents of Menlo Park, Calif., are registered to vote in both Menlo Park and in Essex.
"That's illegal," Brian McNiff, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Secretary of State's office told the Times Wednesday. "You cannot be registered to vote in two separate places at once. I don't know how that would happen."
The Clean Election's Fund, headed by Cliff Ageloff, a full-time Essex resident and an engineering consultant, is concerned that, of all the communities they researched that have seasonal populations, Essex may be the only one that allows a summer dweller to meet the legal definition of resident, therefore qualifying them to register to vote. And that voting has come into play especially at Town Meeting, when Ageloff and others say Conomo Point residents have wrongly been allowed to vote and steer key issues regarding Conomo Point's leases and other land issues.
Essex Town Clerk Christina Wright confirmed that many of the people who were reported have seasonal leases and appear to be from the Conomo Point area, but officials have not yet gone through each individual name — a process Wright said will be neither quick nor easy.
"It will take significant time and resources from multiple Town departments in order to investigate and gather information for the complaints we've been presented with by the complainants," said Wright.
She said as voting is a civil right, Town Counsel has become involved and will be present at both the board of registrars meeting on Aug. 31 and throughout the possible hearings.
"We'll have to look at everything," said Wright. "From checking where their motor vehicles are registered and where their children go to school, to where or if they participate religiously in the town and so on," she said.
"And as far as I am aware," she said, "expenses for this process are being paid for by the Town of Essex."
While no one can legally register or vote in more than one community, McNiff said Wednesday that citizens who live in more than one place can in fact choose where they'd like to vote depending on where they are most involved "civically and socially."
But upon registering to vote in Essex, one is entitled to participate in all electoral events — federal and state elections as well as local elections and Town Meetings.
In a phone interview with the Times on Tuesday, Ageloff outlined what he sees as the real problem, recalling the two-night Town Meeting in May, where he said about 500 people attended the first night because the issues involved residents as well as people with seasonal leases.
The following night, which involved issues only relevant to year-round residents, brought 100 people.
"People with summer cottages are narrow, single-issue voters," said Ageloff. "They're not in it for the town, they're in it for themselves and their cottages."
Ageloff said Ipswich makes sure summer residents are not allowed to register to vote, as does Manchester and Rockport.
Wright, meanwhile, said the board of registrars will meet along with the town's selectmen next Wednesday night to discuss the matter and to determine if there is sufficient ground to summon the voters for hearings.
If the board finds evidence that some registered town voters are not qualified voters, the board shall strike his or her name from the voters list, she said.
The group of plaintiffs who signed the petition include Ageloff, Helen Brown, Maria Burnham, Karen Cooper, Edward Neal and Julie Scofield.
They mounted their formal challenge on Monday, when they dropped of the names at Essex Town Hall.
The town clerk said the group, which calls itself a "local organization," according to its own press statement, has no documentation through the town, and she was not aware the group of plaintiffs were a formal organization, not that they need to be, however.
The plaintiffs besides Ageloff did not return phone calls placed by the Times seeking their comments.
In a Monday press statement for the Clean Elections group, Karen Brown questioned how "the wife of the chair of the North Reading selectmen votes regularly in Essex when she and her husband live year-round in North Reading?"
The Times, however, confirmed Wednesday through town clerks' offices in North Reading and Essex that Robert Mauceri, who chairs the North Reading Board of Selectmen, is only registered to vote in North Reading, while his wife, Angela, is registered to vote in Essex, but not in North Reading.
Neither the Mauceris nor the Wendells in California could be reached by phone Wednesday for comment.
According to Wright, one should not be registered to vote in multiple places without the existence of special legislation in a community that has been approved by the state to ensure it is consistent with state law. Currently, however, there is no such special legislation in the town of Essex, she said.
This is not the first time a challenge like this has been made in Essex. In 1997, a successful challenge removed several voters from the rolls.
Jesse Poole can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3447, or at email@example.com.