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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Not even presidents get to vote twice

Essex, Massachusetts, at low tide.
(Photo courtesy of Cliff Ageloff)
Editor's note: This letter was originally published in the Gloucester Times on August 24, 2011. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.

Letter: Essex needs to clean up Conomo voting policies

To the editor:

Ever since New England's first summer visitors established vacation getaways such as Conomo Point in small coastal towns, there has been tension over town policies between those who relocate for part of the year and those who reside permanently.

Many coastal communities have accommodated summer residents' concerns about town affairs through non-resident taxpayer associations. Throughout Cape Cod, for example, several towns have mechanisms to allow non-resident taxpayers a participatory role in local government since there is a tacit understanding that non-residents don't vote.

These mechanisms give seasonal residents a voice, not a vote. All acknowledge that summer folks indeed live and vote elsewhere.

Essex is embarrassingly distinguished, however, from all other coastal communities in that summer residents get to vote. In all other communities with seasonal populations — whether they lease, rent or own property — it's made uniformly clear by local registrars, as in neighboring Ipswich and Rockport, that summer people do not meet the legal definition of resident and therefore do not qualify as voters.

Residency standards found in the street listing and voter registration laws protect our parochial interests; it is how we guard ourselves from purely selfish, self-serving outsiders.

Grover Cleveland, a "pretty large and uncomplaining"
nonresident taxpayer of Bourne, Massachusetts.
In other communities, electoral integrity is guarded vigorously to keep the rolls clean of unqualified voters — unqualified, that is, just like President Grover Cleveland of Princeton, N.J.

Retired history professor Jim Coogan tells a story of even the most privileged and powerful being unable to vote in their vacation homes' host community.

In 1890, when President Cleveland purchased his waterfront home Gray Gables on Buzzards Bay in Bourne, he was welcomed by his year-round neighbors. But when Cleveland complained to selectmen about what he called "the nuisance of dirty, foul-mouthed, shouting men" digging clams, he got little sympathy from the town fathers. The president wrote to a friend that it seemed there was "in some quarters of the town of Bourne, a disposition to drive us out of the community."

Because Cleveland was a legal resident of Princeton, N.J., he couldn't vote in Bourne — nor was he allowed, even as president of the United States, to speak at Town Meeting. He was, in his own words, "a pretty large and uncomplaining taxpayer."

Grover Cleveland wasn't a big fan of quahoggers.
Poor Grover Cleveland! Had he been wise enough to lease a cottage at Conomo Point and declare it "home," the president would have been welcomed as a voting resident, no questions asked! As a special courtesy, the town would send mail to his home in New Jersey just so he can be counted in the town's annual census.

Every place but here, sadly, it's no mystery where people can legally vote. We vote where we live, not where we summer. It's the place we typically pay our bills from, where we have our home offices, and it's often where we celebrate Christmas.

In Essex, Conomo Point tenants have been allowed to falsely claim residency even though they can't be "at home" here. Their leases prohibit winter occupancy when there is no water service. Quite simply: Nobody's home because they indeed live somewhere else.

The rampant abuses of voter fraud based on false residency claims are being formally challenged now. No one is allowed to vote in two states, but some seasonal voters appear to be registered in New Jersey, California, Michigan and Florida. Falsely claiming residency for voting carries criminal penalties of up to $10,000 or five years in prison or both.

Can you already hear the cries of "no taxation without representation"?

If one has three or four residences, does that mean one can vote wherever one happens to pay taxes? Of course not. Clearly, Essex owes fairness, courtesy, and respect to summer cottage vacationers. But that should be as far as it goes.

Grover Cleveland's ghost is spooking many in town because our irregular voter registration practices are indeed quite scary. As a result, Essex's uniquely convoluted residency policies have compromised the integrity of our electoral process.

In Essex, more than 100 over-privileged, unqualified voters are unjustly bestowed special rights unworthy of even a commander in chief. Essex is entitled to clean elections through the diligent enforcement of residency rules.

It would be proper to honor Grover Cleveland's spirit and the rest of us mere mortals who truly live in Essex: Make Essex a place where only legal residents can cast their vote.