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It's Not Just Who You Are, It's Where You Live: Domicile and the Elections Stained Glass Window

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[Image courtesy of flickr member shlomp via Buildipedia]

The past week's headlines have a number of stories about the importance of political geography:

+ In Indiana, the state Supreme Court refused (for the time being) to take a case challenging the eligibility of Secretary of State Charlie White to serve, given allegations that he had registered to vote at an address where he did not live;

+ In New Jersey, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated former Olympian and current state Senate candidate Carl Lewis to the ballot after a trial court removed him because of the state's "durational residency" requirement for candidates; and

+ Maine's GOP chair cited evidence that 19 medical students registered to vote in 2004 from a South Portland Holiday Inn Express in arguing that the repeal of the state's same-day registration law should stand.

Back in February, I wrote about similar questions surrounding Rahm Emanuel's candidacy for mayor of Chicago. What I said then applies equally to the cases above - namely, that controversies like this are

living, breathing, front-page example[s] 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.

[I]t 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.

Notwithstanding all of the current attention to the question of identity raised by the national voter ID debate, residency/domicile questions are far more common - and troublesome - in the everyday practice of election administration.

As the country becomes ever-more mobile and district and precinct lines shift - especially during the 52 pickup that is the aftermath of redistricting - residency issues require election officials to take great care to ensure that every voter gets the ballot he or she is eligible to cast. Breakdowns of this process are a pain point and generate time- and labor-intensive problems for election offices like voter challenges, inactive registrations and provisional ballots. Unlike other debates, the evidence of these problems are widespread and plentiful.

Consequently, here's hoping that we can find room in the current election policy debates for a discussion of how to use upgrades to the voter registration system, better voting information and other initiatives to address (if not prevent) residency/domicile questions in our nation's election system.

To an election geek like me, America's stained glass window is truly beautiful. Why not preserve and protect it for the foreseeable future and beyond?

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