GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

October 18, 2013

Voter residency bill gains support

By James Niedzinski
Staff Writer

---- — BOSTON — Conomo Point residents, other Essex residents and town officials are in agreement on a Conomo Point issue — and it’s coming to light outside of a courtroom setting.

Conomo Point resident Susan Abis and Town Clerk Christina Wright were among those who voiced their support of a bill that would charge the secretary of state with reviewing the current voter residency requirements and making suggestions to clarify any voter residency issues.

The two testified in front of the Joint Committee on Election Laws on Wednesday in Boston during a public hearing at the Statehouse, essentially backing state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr who filed the bill and also serves on the Joint Committee on Election Laws.

At least one other Essex resident offered a written testimony, while a handful of Conomo Point residents appeared at the hearing, along with Wright and a representative from the town’s law firm, Boston-based Kopelman and Paige.

The bill stems from issues surrounding Conomo Point residents and their right to vote in Town Meetings and local elections.

Nearly all of them are seasonal residents and have claimed Essex as their primary residency. But members of the Essex Clean Election Fund raised eligibility concerns in 2011, when they challenged the rights of Conomo Point voters and filed more than 100 residency complaints.

“I respectfully request favorable action on this bill as to ensure preservation of one of the most fundamental tenants of democracy: the right to vote,” Wright said.

She said the Board of Registrars, on which she also serves, has very little precedence or statutory guidance in the voter residency issue. Yet the board must determine if the town where the voter is casting a ballot is the home to the “domestic, social, and civil life” of the voter.

Since she took on the role of town clerk in 2010, Wright said, the Essex Clean Election Fund has brought forth around 120 voter residency complaints, with nearly 50 resulting in hearings.

“This process has cost the town of Essex tens of thousands of dollars in fees and other expenses,” she said, while also adding some 300 hours to the workload.

The usual turnout at an Essex Town Meeting is 100 to 150 of the town’s estimated 2,500 registered citizens, but swells to 250 to 400 when Conomo Point issues are on the warrant, she added, noting that important Conomo Point matters are often decided by a narrow margin at Town Meetings.

The volunteer Board of Registrars have come under “close scrutiny with every single action they take,” she said, adding that complaints ranged from registrars being too strict to too lenient.

Abis, meanwhile, said she has lived in town for 52 years and also lives in New Hampshire. She said she has been through two voter residency hearings.

She said they only come out when Conomo Point issues come before the town.

“The rest of the time there really aren’t any challenges,” she said.

“It’s a great first step,” Abis said of the Tarr bill.

She said 23 names were stricken from the rolls, and additional Conomo Point residents removed their names to avoid the public hearings. When trying to register as a voter last year, Abis supplied Wright with her driver’s license, dog license, library card, store receipts and bank statements — yet she was still called in for public hearings. She answered personal questions about what church she belonged to and where her children attended school.

“It’s an intrusive process, it’s very difficult to go through,” she said of the public hearing process.

While Essex Clean Elections Fund leader Cliff Ageloff did not testify Wednesday, he did submit a written testimony.

“It is a broken system with no formal provision of checks or proof required that someone has in fact changed their actual primary residency,” he wrote.

Ageloff cited a case in which Conomo Point residents voted in California in addition to at an Essex Town Meeting. He agreed with both Wright and Abis that the current system needs a revision.

“The pathos associated with this violation of the public trust has led to the wholesale transfer of our town’s waterfront from public to private hands,” he wrote. “There was and remains a political agenda that depends on the out-of-town vote to move that agenda forward.”

Vice chair of the committee, state Rep. Linda Campbell (D-Methuen), asked Wright to suggest what some first steps might be for the secretary of state to take. Wright recommended more simple administrative tasks, such as asking for documents and a more administrative, inter-office process before going to such a public stage.

“Who are we as a Board of Registrars to say, one way or another, that someone is more or less socially involved by just testimony?” she said.

Ageloff also offered some ideas in his written testimony, such as cross-referencing of public records, refining the street listing process or providing voter identification.

“You sign a sworn statement saying you are a resident, and that’s the end of it,” he said during a phone interview.

Tarr gave a brief overview of the issue during the hearing. He said the Saturday hearings were very contentious and unnecessarily disruptive to the town.

He recognized the problem may also come up next in Rockport, at Long Beach, which also includes more than 150 seasonal cottages and homes leased by tenants on town-owned land.

“I hope that won’t be the case,” he said. “But all of that has taught us that these laws need to be reviewed, and we could do better in having more clarity in the law and more objective standards by which local officials can make decisions if they are called upon to do so.”

James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at jniedzinski@gloucestertimes.com.