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Could Out of State Voters Swing a RI Election?

Thursday, July 07, 2011

 

A GoLocalProv investigation has found several Rhode Island communities that are popular vacation destinations have significantly more registered voters than residents—raising questions about the influence of seasonal residents in state and local elections.

A comparison of the new U.S. Census data with public voter registration records revealed significant discrepancies in at least four communities in 2010:

■ Block Island had 888 year-round residents aged 18 years and older recorded in the Census while 1,468 people were registered to vote—a difference of 65 percent.
■ Jamestown had 362 more registered voters than residents.
■ Little Compton had 236 more voters than residents.
■ Westerly had 2,289 more voters than residents—a discrepancy of more than 15 percent. (See below chart for the complete breakdown.)

“This is the first I’m hearing of it,” said Robert Kando, the executive director for the state Board of Elections. “I can’t explain it right now. I know that our registrations are accurate … I don’t know how accurate the Census is.”

‘Maybe we should take a closer look at this’

Kando said the discrepancies are something the Board of Elections staff would be examining.

Residents who moved or are attending college could account for some differences between Census data and voter registrations. But some of the numbers are simply too large to be explained by such scenarios, said William P. Devereaux, an attorney who served as defense counsel in a prominent voter fraud case in East Providence. “When you say there is a 2,000 person discrepancy you cross a threshold where you say, ‘Geez maybe we should take a closer look at this,’” Devereaux said.

“Either the Census missed some people or the Census is correct and people are declaring a place as their permanent residence which is not their permanent residence,” Devereaux said.

One former state election official said that the higher number of registered voters is due to out-of-state residents from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York who have vacation homes in Rhode Island. He estimates that as many as 10,000 voters in Rhode Island are actually out-of-state residents.

Out of state voters could number in the thousands

The GoLocalProv review of the available data found a difference of at least 3,467 between those counted as residents by the Census and those registered to vote. That is close to the 3,857-vote margin of victory in the closely-fought Secretary of State race between Democrat Ralph Mollis and Republican Catherine Taylor in the last election.

But the potential impact of out-of-state voters is far greater in local elections for school committee or town council, where the winners can be decided by just a few hundred votes.

“If any of these races were close within the margin of error you’ve got a problem—a serious issue,” said former state Senator Lou Raptakis, who also ran in the Democratic primary for Secretary of State last year.

On Block Island, Town Clerk Fiona Fitzpatrick attributed the gap between residents and registered voters to seasonal residents. She said several other “summer communities” like Block Island tend to have more voters than residents. Most of the seasonal residents in Block Island hail from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and, to a lesser extent, Massachusetts, according to Linda Powers, the tax collector.

Kando agreed that out-of-state residents could be one possible explanation.

Not everyone, however, thinks that out-of-state voting could explain the discrepancies. “I doubt it because this is a seasonal residence. They vote in their homes where they live nine months out of the year,” said Cheryl Fernstrom, the town clerk in Jamestown.

Fernstrom said there is a lag between the time that a person may move away and when they are actually removed from the voter rolls. “You don’t just take someone willy-nilly off without proof,” she said. By law, a city or town cannot remove an inactive voter from the registration lists until after that voter has missed two federal elections, according to Kando.

State law could allow ‘vacationers’ to vote

State law says that a person must vote in the community where he or she is a permanent resident—or, in the words of the law, has a “fixed and established domicile” in the community. In order to be a permanent resident, the law states that someone has to be present the community on a regular basis and have an intention on staying there for an “indefinite period” of time. A prospective voter also has to have been a resident for at least 30 days.

State and local officials said there is nothing in the law that necessarily stops someone who lives in Rhode Island for only part of the year from voting here. Kando offered the example of a Rhode Islander who spends half the year living in Florida. “If they declare their residence in Rhode Island, I don’t have a problem with that—as long as they maintain their residency in Rhode Island,” Kando said.

State and federal law are unequivocal on at least one point: a person cannot be registered to vote in two places at the same time. “I think the most important thing is whether you have a tie to one location and whether you’re voting in one location,” Kando said.

But local and state election officials yesterday conceded there is no way to verify that someone has not registered to vote in more than one place. But they said they do check voter registrations against a national database of current mailing addresses, known as NCOA.

Also, the new state law on voter ID could have an impact on the number of vacationing New Yorkers and others voting in Rhode Island elections. The law mandates that voters show a photo ID at polling places. “If they produce a New York license that doesn’t work because you can’t have a New York license that has a Rhode Island address,” said the former state election official.

Instead, out-of-state voters would have to bring a passport, birth certificate, or other form of ID in order to satisfy the new rules.

If the validity of an individual voter’s registration is challenged, ultimately the state Board of Elections may have to weigh in on the matter, Kando said. State law provides the board with a list of criteria that it could use in ruling, including: motor vehicle registration, the address on federal income tax returns, and the address where bank statements and tax bills are mailed.

The clerk for the Board of Canvassers in Westerly was unavailable for comment yesterday and the Little Compton Town Clerk did not respond to a request for comment.

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