A bill filed by state Sen. Bruce Tarr regarding the state’s residency and voter eligibility laws — one slated for a public hearing at the State House on Wednesday — won’t produce any direct changes in the state’s voting murky eligibility rules that have raised significant concerns in Essex and are surfacing in Rockport as well.
That’s because Tarr’s bill doesn’t make recommendations for specific changes; it only asks the Secretary of State’s office to review the current standards and “make any recommendations to strengthen and clarify residency requirements.”
But Tarr’s request is an important first step toward changes that are clearly needed. The state’s voter residency standards are essential for assuring and protecting the integrity of local Town Meeting votes and local elections, especially. And despite inroads made two years ago by an Essex citizens’ group led by Cliff Ageloff, the reality is that at least some voters who have participated in key Essex and now perhaps Rockport decisions — relating to seasonal properties at Conomo Point and Long Leach — may not have been held eligible to do so. That’s a betrayal of other town residents that cannot continue.
At issue is whether seasonal tenants or residents should be able to vote in Town Meetings or in town elections, given that voting eligibility is defined by one’s primary residence.
That’s a dicey proposition from the start for many Conomo Point and Long Beach residences, whose “homes” in those towns must be considered seasonal in the first place. Yet many of those residents have succeeded in obtaining local voting rights by claiming these properties are their “primary” residences, based on such loosely defined logic as where they regularly attend church, perhaps where they bank, and where they feel the most civically connected.
Sound shaky? It is. Yet those are among the “primary residence” qualifiers currently listed in the state’s guidelines. And it’s provisions like those that Tarr rightfully wants strengthened.
He’s not alone. Essex Town Clerk Christina Brown – who dealt with Ageloff’s Clean Elections Fund 100-plus voter challenges two years ago, and who indeed purged more than two dozen ineligible names from the lists — has also said the current system is broken. And she’s right.
While some residents in Essex have viewed challenges to seasonal residents’ voting eligibility as a political ploy, it’s not. That’s because the eligibility of these voters cuts right to the credibility of any number of Town Meeting votes, especially.
Indeed, while debating last month whether to extend new leases of 10 or even more years to the tenants of Long Beach — Rockport Selectwoman Sarah Wilkinson noted that the Annual Town Meeting had given its green light to running the leases up to an absurd 30 years, and she was right.
Yet, by all counts, a number of Long Beach voters participated in that meeting. Were they all voters for whom Rockport is truly their “primary” residence? Given their seasonality, that’s doubtful. But under the current state guidelines, it would be hard to prove otherwise. And because of that, there can now be very real credibility questions about the Town Meeting vote. That, frankly, isn’t fair to anyone.
How can one’s primary residence be better defined? One step might be through using the address at which a person pays his or her federal income taxes. Another might be through the person’s residence on a driver’s license or other governmental document. And there may be others as well.
But that, under Tarr’s bill, will be up to the Secretary of State’s office. In the meantime, let’s hope this bill gets the hearing and legislative support it needs to get this study underway.
The credibility of town meeting votes — at least in Essex and Rockport — is at stake. And that’s a credibility issue that neither officials nor voters should have to face.