Special to the Cape Charles Mirror, Terrence Flynn our General Registrar for Northampton County provided a brilliant and in-depth explanation of voter residency requirements in the State of Virginia
With the May 3, 2016, Cape Charles Town Election quickly approaching, the questions about who can or cannot register to be a town voter, and who can help that person register continues to be debated. Our office has received questions about this from time to time, the subject has appeared in the Wave and Mirror, and finally, when Wayne contacted me about it, I decided it would be a good time to address this issue head on.
The issue is usually brought up in the following way: I’ve heard that So and So is running for town council and encouraging out of town people to register as town voters. Is that legal? Don’t you have to be a full time resident or own property and/or pay taxes to vote as a town resident?”
So, to begin, a few facts:
1) Candidates for elective office can inquire about someone’s registration status and encourage them to register if they are not already registered, just like any citizen can. In fact during local elections, like we had in November, many candidates do ask potential voters if they are registered or need an absentee ballot as they go door to door in their districts. Our office even gives them a quick registration lesson and supplies the voter registration applications. This is a big help to us as it brings in new voters and helps us keep up-to-date with voters who have new registration information.
2) A citizen of the Commonwealth need not own any property or pay any taxes to qualify as a voter. If one did need these things to vote, we would be back in the bad old days when only landowners of a certain type could vote, or one had to pay a poll tax to vote. What about people who rent, or don’t pay any town taxes, like young adults living at home? Should they be disenfranchised?
So now that those issues are settled, let’s move on to a trickier subject, residence. The Code of Virginia (24.2-101) defines residence as:
“Residence” or “resident,” for all purposes of qualification to register and vote, means and requires both domicile and a place of abode. To establish domicile, a person must live in a particular locality with the intention to remain. A place of abode is the physical place where a person dwells.
The code defines a town voter as:
“Qualified voter in a town” means a person who is a resident within the corporate boundaries of the town in which he offers to vote, duly registered in the county of his residence, and otherwise a qualified voter.
As one can see, “residence,” as established in the Virginia Code for voting purposes is a somewhat vague and broad term, meaning that the person lives, or “establishes a domicile” in a “particular locality with the intention to remain.” But how do we determine intent? And what amount of time does “remain” require?
Consider several examples: What about college students? Some college students transfer their registration to vote at their college address but may only reside there as long as they are a student, which may only be a few months; conversely, other students may reside in their college town year-round for several years, but vote in Northampton elections via absentee ballot. What about members of the military? Some own no land in Northampton and have been out of the county for years, but still call Cape Charles home and vote via absentee ballot, as may their spouses and family. What about people who come to Cape Charles to care for a family member for a short time, or have to leave town to care for someone? Finally what about the transient population, the homeless, the vagrants and those afflicted by wanderlust? Should they not be allowed to vote because they have no permanent home? All of these folks have a right to register and the privilege to vote as long as they are 18 years old; an American citizen and Virginia resident; and have not been convicted of a felony or judged mentally incapacitated. Should any of the above hypothetical voters be disenfranchised simply because they do not or cannot remain in one place all the time? Also, voting is an excellent way to feel like one is part of a local community, and isn’t that essentially what one does to establish residency?
The issue of residency causes much consternation in college towns, as well, especially in smaller towns with a fairly large student population that could wield disproportionate influence over town matters. Students can register to vote and still keep their vehicles licensed in another state, and pay out of state tuition. Should a person forfeit voting simply because they go to college outside their native voting district?
Let’s turn from the abstract and look at some hard data. On January 2, 2014, the first day one could register to be a candidate in the 2014 May Town Election, Cape Charles had 801 registered town voters. On May 8, 2014, Election Day, there were 815 registered voters. Since 416 voters turned out to vote that day, those additional 14 voters, assuming they all voted, accounted for 3% of the turnout. The mayoral race was won by 115 votes; of the three winning candidates for Town Council, the lowest vote total was 238, and the next highest vote total among losing candidates was 168 for a difference of 70 votes.
On January 4th, 2016, there were 853 registered voters in Cape Charles. On April 11, 2016, the last day one could register for the May 3, 2016, Town Election, there were 869 total voters for a change of 16 voters or a change of 2%.
The bottom line is that each qualified Virginia voter can only vote in one locality per election. Overall, Virginia does a good job walking the line between responsibility and fairness. We have some absolutes, like age and citizenship, that define the minimum for qualified voters, but the law also takes into consideration that life happens and people move about. The end goal for all of this is for as many qualified voters as possible to participate in the electoral process. So, please, on Election Day, join your neighbors and exercise your privilege to vote.