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.
II. Election News This Week
- Keep your laws off our elections! That was the cry from the Pierce County (Wash.) council this week when it voted 6 to 1 to in essence tell the state legislature to “butt out” of how it conducts its elections. Pierce County is the only county in the state that still relies on election-day polling places and several Pierce County legislators are once again circulating legislation that would end the tradition. The bill has already cleared several legislative hurdles and has the support of Secretary of State Sam Reed, and both the Pierce County auditor and executive. But the county council believes “poll voting is a time-honored tradition” that shouldn’t be taken away from voters. “If the Legislature would butt out of our business,” the county will take care of its own issues, Councilwoman Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup told The News Tribune.
- Making Montana only the second all vote-by-mail state looked like an almost sure thing late last week after the Senate approved bipartisan legislation and the House gave tentative approval as well. However, the wheels came off the bus late in the day on Friday after intense debate on security and special outreach programs for Indians and students had 15 House Republicans switching their vote to oppose the legislation instead. Afterward, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, a Democrat who put together the working group that came up with the bill, said it's time to present the issue directly to voters as a ballot initiative. She commended Rep. Pat Ingraham (R) for her hard work in moving the bill forward."Today's vote proves that fiction too easily trumps fact in the Montana Legislature," McCulloch told the Billings Gazette. "It's a sad day when elected legislators let politics and scare tactics stand in the way of doing what's right. Politics overpowered the greater good, and Montanans lost." All 57 votes against the bill were Republicans. Supporting the bill were all 32 House Democrats and 10 Republicans.
- Blizzaster 2011 didn’t just shut down about a third of the nation this week, it also intruded on several elections. In Woodbury County, Iowa, the auditor attributed low turnout to the severe weather. And even in “flinty” Chicago, early voting locations were forced to close on Wednesday due to snow and extreme temperatures. In New Mexico Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver issued a statement the night before Tuesday’s election saying the show would go on no matter what because there are no provisions in the state law to postpone an election due to weather. Several other New Mexico counties reported low turnout due to the cold and snowy weather. Greene County, Mo. had to cancel scheduled poll worker training and may have reschedule its Feb. 8 election if another predicted storm makes its way across the country.
- Updates on Special Elections: It’s looking more like California will hold a special statewide election this year — on top of the countless special elections localities are conducting. Although the General Assembly would have to approve holding the special election, talk has already begun on whether or not to conduct it entirely by mail as a way to save money. This week, both chambers of the West Virginia legislature voted to hold a special election to fill the governor’s seat, however the House and Senate disagree on when those elections should be held. The Senate bill proposes holding the elections on June 20 and Oct. 4 and the House version on May 14 and Sept. 13. Late on Wednesday, the Senate agreed with the House on the primary date but refused to budge on a date for the general.
- Personnel News: Donald Palmer was appointed to lead the Virginia State Board of Elections this week. Most recently Palmer was director of elections with the Florida Department of State, where he helped supervise the 2008 presidential election and the 2010 midterm elections. Governor Bob McDonnell also appointed Charles E. Judd of Chesterfield County and Kimberly T. Bowers of Richmond to the three-member board. Tippi Slaughterwas appointed as the new elections chief for Butler County, Ohio. Genesee County Deputy Elections Commissioner Sharon White retired last week, but was back on the job this week on an as-needed basis because Republican Commissioner Richard Siebert will be on extended medical leave starting next month. West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant announced her plans to seek the governor’s seat in the upcoming special election. A week after being asked to step down Rutherford County Election Commissioners Doris Jones and Oscar Gardner agreed to resign at the request of state Sen. Bill Ketron.
III. Research and Report Summaries
An Empirical Note on Footnote 24 of the 6th Circuit Hunter Decision - Charles Stewart III, MIT, January 27, 2011: New research puts into context the recent decision of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals regarding Hunter v. Hamilton County Board of Elections about Ohio’s provisional ballot law and rules about counting provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct. Using 2008 data, Stewart finds no evidence that counties with more multi-precinct voting locations issue more provisional ballots than those with few consolidated voting locations. Additionally provisional ballot rejection rates at multi-precinct locations are examined.
The Canvass: States and Election Reform - National Conference of State Legislature, February 2011: This month’s issue examines how the fiscal crunch has affected state election policy, provides an update on state compliance with the federal MOVE Act, and describes the role of international election observers.
Colorado: Voter ID
District of Columbia: Primary election
Georgia: Early voting
Kansas: Voter ID
Illinois: Early voting
Indiana: Vote centers
Iowa: Voter ID
New Hampshire: College voting bill
New Jersey: Election overlap
New York: Lever voting machines
Oklahoma: Voting machines
Rhode Island: Polling places
Washington: Polling places
V. Job Openings