I. In Focus This Week
Domicile, Rahm-icile: Reflections on the Elections Stained Glass Window
Like any self-respecting election geek, I was riveted by the recent legal dust-up in Chicago about whether or not Rahm Emanuel is eligible to run for mayor.
While popular coverage of the case focused on the political impact of the controversy, for me the case was a living, breathing, front-page example of a rare if not unique characteristic of American elections.
I call it the stained-glass window.
Just as a larger image is assembled from small yet well-defined pieces of glass, America’s electoral map is built from small but well-defined pieces of geography. At any given time, voters can belong to one and only one piece – and that choice has an impact on just about every aspect of their voting experience: what’s on the ballot, the means, rules and deadlines for casting it and the level of human and technological resources devoted to assist them with the process.
And yet, as the Emanuel case reminds us, it isn’t enough for a voter merely to choose a piece of the window; they must also be prepared to prove that they belong there. Residency requirements at virtually every level of government specify criteria to evaluate whether or not an individual is sufficiently a part of a jurisdiction to participate in its elections.
The test commonly used is the notion of “domicile”, which requires some level of physical presence in a place plus intent to remain there. When voters are largely settled and stationery - i.e., in a single piece of the window - this inquiry is relatively simple. When they hop from piece to piece, however - as more and more voters do in our increasingly mobile nation - it gets far more difficult.
The Emanuel case is also illustrative of another key feature of the notion of domicile: while a voter can choose a piece of the window, that choice is not conclusive and he or she must be prepared to defend it if challenged. Because residence is so personal, these discussions are incredibly fact-intensive. Thus, for example, in defense of a challenge to his Chicago residency (and his mayoral eligibility), a key piece of evidence on Mr. Emanuel’s behalf was that belongings left behind in his family’s rented Chicago house included his wife’s wedding gown, an heirloom coat worn by his grandfather when he immigrated to the U.S. and his children’s school projects and report cards.
It’s tempting to dismiss Maksym v. Chicago Board of Elections as a bare-knuckled Chicago political fight; however, the headlines in the last few weeks have brought us other examples of the role that domicile and the stained glass window play in the American electoral process:
- In New Hampshire, a state legislator has introduced a bill that would strip many college students, military servicemembers and federal workers of the right to vote in the state by sharply limiting the definition of domicile; and
- In Montana, debate about the adoption of voting by mail included legislators openly questioning voting by college students, noting their lack of connection to the community.
What’s fascinating about these domicile fights is that they don’t really stem from a problem that can be conclusively solved. Efforts to modernize the nation’s election system have made it easier than ever to jump from piece to piece by improving voter registration and voting information and yet -- unless the nation is willing to abandon state and local boundaries, which I doubt -- the stained-glass window remains. Indeed, our growing mobility and modernization is going to bring domicile to the forefront of election administration more and more over time.
The challenge as this happens will be to take a hard look at our election laws, regulations, practices and procedures to ensure that domicile discussions, as messy as they are, are used only to assess residency and not to screen out otherwise eligible voters based on how they might vote.
After all, each of us belongs to a piece of the election stained glass window – but we need to remember that our piece doesn’t really belong to us.
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