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.
The issue has also begun to surface in Rockport, where growing numbers of seasonal residents of Long Beach have turned out for meetings and voted at Town Meeting on questions regarding their lease renewals on the town-owned properties.
Town Clerk Patricia Brown said Thursday that, as she understands it, seasonal Long Beach residents can claim Rockport as their home on the official state mail in voter registration form, and can switch back and forth between claiming a Long Beach home to a home somewhere else. While some residents of Long Beach and Conomo Point have homes elsewhere in their respective towns, many others have homes in other municipalities and other states.
Brown said the voter issue has not formally been raised in Rockport, but she agreed that the voter residency laws need to be examined more closely.
When someone does challenge the legitimacy of a voter being a resident, the Board of Registrars conducts a public hearing; those challenging the voter’s residency make their case and the voter in question makes their own.
Tarr said he has invited municipal officials to the public hearing on the potential reform bill, which is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 16 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the State House in Boston, on 24 Beacon Street.
Those who cannot make the public hearing, Tarr said, can write to the Joint Committee on Election Laws at the State House. For letters, the State Senate room number is 416B and the House room number is 443.
Otherwise, emails can be sent to the chairs of the committee — State Sen. Barry Finegold at Barry.Finegold@MASenate.gov or State Rep. James Murphy at James.Murphy@mahouse.gov.
James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at email@example.com.