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Home is Where ... the Cellphone Is? Domicile in the Mobile Age

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[Image courtesy of thinkgeek]

Last September, I blogged about the issue of domicile and discussed how elections resemble a stained glass window built from small well-defined pieces of geography.

Given that where you live is so important to the question of voter eligibility, it shouldn't be surprising that domicile disputes over eligibility often turn on the mundane, everyday details of individuals' lives. When challenges arose to the Chicago mayoral candidacy of Rahm Emanuel, the nature and value of possessions Emanuel left behind in the Windy City (including his wife's wedding dress) while serving in the White House was a key piece of evidence in the dispute.

These disputes are now even more complicated - and interesting - because of the advent of mobile technology. Mobile phones use towers to send and receive data; presumably (as any fan of TV crime procedurals will tell you) it should be possible to use data about which tower(s) relayed an individual call to narrow, if not pinpoint, the location from which a call was made.

Such evidence is apparently about to become a key part of prosecutors' case against Indiana Secretary Charlie White, who is charged with voter fraud for allegedly lying about his residence while campaigning for local office in 2009 and 2010. If convicted, he not only faces the possibility of prison but the certainty of losing his job as Secretary in the middle of a Presidential election year.

At trial yesterday, prosecutors indicated that they will soon call a representative of Sprint, White's mobile carrier, who will testify that "cellphone records will show he lived in a townhouse with his then-fiancee -- instead of in a home with his ex-wife, as he has claimed."

Of course, such evidence is only helpful in identifying an individual's location; it doesn't say anything about the intent to return to another place - another key aspect of domicile. Thus, evidence that a UMN undergraduate, whose voting address is in Duluth, actually resides in a dorm on Minneapolis' East Bank wouldn't necessarily call her voter eligibility into question given other factors that could indicate an intent to return north after graduation. These kinds of questions - what do we consider home, as opposed to where do we physically reside - are still complicated questions.

But in those cases where physical location is the key question - as it is when evaluating allegations that a candidate has used a false address to establish eligibility for office - the growing capability of of law enforcement to use mobile phone data to fix a location will make the question of "where is home?" much easier to answer.

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