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October 11, 2013

Bill on town voting rules gets hearing

A voting eligibility bill stemming from a dispute over the role of Conomo Point residents in Essex aims to study and review the state’s laws about residency, and is slated for a public hearing at the Massachusetts State House next week.

The Senate bill was filed by Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, the Gloucester Republican whose district includes all of Cape Ann, and is backed by state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester, in the House, and state Sen. Richard Ross, R-Wrentham.

The bill calls for the Secretary of State’s office to review the state’s voter residency laws and “make any recommendations to strengthen and clarify residency requirements” regarding voter eligibility at the local, state, and federal levels. The bill itself does not make any reform recommendations.

“I don’t have any conclusions yet, I have a lot of questions,” Tarr said. “The problems are much clearer than the solutions.”

The legislation is a direct result of issues swirling around Conomo Point, and questions over the eligibility of its seasonal residents to vote at Town Meeting or in Essex elections, with the town listed as their “primary” residence.

Throughout the years, Essex’s Board of Registrars have stricken voters off the rolls after other residents challenged their eligibility, and the issued reached a peak in 2011, when a small citizens group known as the Essex Clean Election Fund challenged more than 100 voters. A number of Point residents withdrew their own registrations, while town officials removed others, leading to more than two dozen voters falling the town’s registration lists. In one case, the challenges found a voter registered both in Essex and in California, a violation of federal election law.

In the aftermath of that episode, Essex Town Clerk Christina Wright met with Tarr and made the case that the current system used to determine local voter eligibility is broken and needed to be addressed, Tarr said. While the current law refers to a voter being eligible in the city of town of his or her “primary residence,” that status is loosely defined — and voters can claim a primary residence based on, for example, their civic involvement or attendance at local churches, for example.

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