, Gloucester, MA

November 5, 2012

Editorial: Essex voter's plight shows need for firm eligibility rules

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — The case of Conomo Point resident Susan Abis has not only renewed the spotlight on the disputes over Essex voting rolls.

Today, as we make our way to the polls – and Abis sits on the sidelines — this case should be a reminder to all lawmakers on the state and even the federal level of the dire need to come up with a uniform and realistic series of guidelines for determining not who is eligible to vote, but where.

For while Essex is still grappling with concerns and even a lawsuit challenging the eligibility of a number of town voters, the fact is, Massachusetts’ guidelines for determining voters’ status remain simply too vague to be realistically enforceable — and can easily be prone to abuse, as we have already found in Essex.

All of this surfaced last year when a group calling itself the Clean Elections Fund challenged the eligibility of more than 100 Essex voters – virtually all of them part-time residents of Conomo Point who had been voting in town meetings and local elections on issues involving the future of their homes and property leases — and succeeded in getting more than 20 removed from the rolls because their primary residence was deemed to be elsewhere. In at least two cases, people who were registered to vote in Essex were also found to be registered elsewhere – which is against federal law. And the purging of the two dozen or so local voters stopped only when the Clean Elections Fund and the town failed to continue with a series of later hearings that had been set for residents based on the first letter of their last names.

That, of course, didn’t spare Abis. But when she appealed to once again be part of Essex’ elections, the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles reportedly told her that her Massachusetts drivers’ license, along with bills addressed to her name in Essex address, would be enough to prove residency. So she sought reinstatement in October – and got turned down again last week, this time too late to mount another appeal to vote in what she considers her hometown.

The problem, of course, is that she also lives in New Hampshire – where she could have registered to vote today right up until this morning. And given the seasonal nature of the vast majority of Conomo Point homes, the denial of her appeal is understandable as well. But neither Abis, nor town officials, nor the Clean Elections group which, led by Cliff Ageloff, primarily wants to confirm that Essex’ elections and voting rolls are legitimate — and has frighteningly found that they’re not — are to blame.

Simply put, the state’s guidelines for voter eligibility — which allows residents to claim their primary residence by, among other things their social connections to the community and civic involvement — essentially beg to be abused. And while there’s no sign Abis was trying to pull a fast one, or even a slow one, for her own gain, the fact is there must be hard-and-fast guidelines for determining these issues.

Those should include a car registration, for example — but they should also include, for example, the address a resident lists in filing his or her income taxes. And there should indeed be some means of verification — via Social Security number or otherwise — to ensure that a person is not registered in more than one city, town or state.

It’s unfortunate that Abis feels the system has cut down her right to vote today. But hopefully those leaders who are elected today will at least consider her case and tighten these voter eligibility guidelines that, in their current form, are really unfair to all.