By James Niedzinski
---- — ESSEX — A year after voting questions produced a series of contentious hearings — and changes to the town’s voting rolls —state Sen. Bruce Tarr and Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante are now pushing a bill aimed at clarifying full-time residency and its related voter eligibility.
The study aims to make voter eligibility requirements clear, easily understandable and enforceable to avoid further confusion of whom is able to vote at a town meeting or in a local, state or general election.
Town Clerk Christina Wright notes there are no case precedents and few guidelines under state law when it comes to voter registration and seasonal residents.
Wright noted that, according to current state mandates, one must simply explain that where you vote is where your civic, social and domestic life is; not where you physically live throughout the year. Furthermore, there are no state guidelines about seasonal voters and how long they must live in the state to be eligible to vote, unlike when people file for tax returns.
If another voter disputes a claim of residency, the Board of Registrars examines the two sides of the argument and makes a formal decision. The issue took center stage in Essex in 2011 after a group of residents calling themselves the Essex Clean Election Fund challenged more than 100 Essex voters – nearly all of them seasonal residents at Conomo Point — and identified more than two dozen whose names were taken off the rolls, with some having been registered in two places.
”My hope is the Sectary of State would spend some time looking at this and see if there are ways to make the system work better,” Tarr said in a phone interview Thursday.
Tarr said the need for these types of hearings may still exist, but they require a lot of time and resources from the town and residents; the current layout can be problematic.
Just before the November elections last year, a seasonal resident of Conomo Point, Susan Abis, was not allowed to vote in town. Abis conceded in 2012 that she could have voted in New Hampshire as she has lived there as well, but considers Essex her true home and challenged the town’s denial of her eligibility.
Year-round residency in Conomo Point has brought up other issues as well.
In January, town officials allowed three Conomo Point residents to finance money through the town to those who had sole residences on Conomo Point and could not afford to buy the properties. However, the Board of Selectmen later realized one resident, Richard Tofuri, owns more property in another state. Despite this, the Board of Selectmen decided to stick to the original installment and sale agreement in a January meeting.
Wright said that the current law is not up to date as it could be, society has changed since the laws were first crafted.
”Traveling from state to state is a lot different than it was 50 years ago,” she said Thursday.
Some Rockport residents find themselves in a similar situation, with more than 100 seasonal cottages sitting behind Long Beach
Rockport’s Patricia Brown said some Long Beach residents have other houses in town and the seasonality is split evenly — six months in one location and six months on Long Beach.
In that vein, she said, residents switch back and forth between voting domiciles, especially since there are articles on the town warrant this year that deal with the Long Beach seawall.
The proposed legislation will not have any effect in upcoming town meetings. If passed, the Secretary of State would submit the study and recommendations to Joint Committee on Election Laws by Sept. 30, 2013.
James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at email@example.com.