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A house is not a home

Voters for Election Integrity (VEI), a grassroots group in Bethel, NY, has announced its intention of challenging at least some of the roughly 150 people who have recently registered to vote in the town. Whatever one thinks about the merits of this particular case, which involves members of a Hasidic bungalow community who live here about six weeks a year, it raises an important general issue for a region like ours that has a proportionally immense part-time population.

We can see more than one side to the problem. On the one hand, it is alarming for people who have only one house—and can only afford one—to feel that the conditions determining their quality of life can be decided by people who come here on vacation. From this standpoint, one might argue that people should only be allowed to vote in the municipalities where they live most of the time, where their children go to school and where they stay during the workweek.

On the other hand, there are a lot of people who, though they also have a residence in and work in a nearby metropolitan area, are much more deeply invested here than they are in the city. They come up nearly every weekend, spend vacations here and would move here if they could find work here. They join local churches, patronize local businesses and support local civic organizations year round. Many of them are putting together a nest egg so they can either retire here or quit their city job and start a business here. Indeed, many of our current full-time residents and business owners are “graduates” of this group.

We think it is dangerous and unfair to enable the first group to vote here. That would be allowing people to vote in a way that enhances the value of their playground while disregarding the broader and longer-term effects of their votes on the people who have no choice but to live, work and raise their children here year round. In contrast, the latter group is deeply enough invested here that they are at least as likely to take into account the general good and long-term local consequences of their votes as full-time residents.

The problem is that the law as it currently stands may not draw the line between these two groups in an appropriate way.

A recent case in Bovina, NY was decided in favor of several citizens who had two residences, one in Bovina and another elsewhere, and had been denied the right to register to vote in Bovina. The problem is not that the case was decided in their favor (maybe it should have been), but that the judge used a crazily broad standard in doing so. Instead of using the New York State law definition of a primary residence as “that place where a person maintains a fixed, permanent and principal home and to which he, wherever temporarily located, always intends to return,” the judge adopted the incredibly broad precedent that the voter “must manifest an intent, coupled with physical presence without any aura of sham.”

Precedent or no, we are baffled as to how anyone could construe the above-quoted language of the law so loosely as to mean that voters with multiple residences can vote wherever they’ve a mind to, without examining hard evidence of their connection to a location. With a standard so broad, large groups of vacationers from big cities could decide at a whim to vote in the rural area where they vacation, crowding out rural residents’ power to control their own destiny.

Whether or not this result is currently legal, it violates the spirit of democracy. If it is indeed how New York courts are currently deciding such cases, we would encourage our legislators to rewrite the law. The courts may need a list of concrete, measurable standards laid out for them to determine whether a resident is closely enough affiliated with a community to make his or her residence there a “permanent home.”

This community cannot turn its back on the rich contributions of those of its members who do not live here full time, yet play a vital part in peopling our streets, businesses, theatres, galleries, festivals and homes. But we also can’t afford to have people who are here a few weeks of the year strong-arm our local politics by claiming that their vacation playground is a permanent home. We don’t know at which end of the spectrum the voter registrations that VEI plans to challenge fall. But we hope those challenges provide an opportunity for the state court system and legislature to establish clearer and better boundaries for the future.

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Dr. Punnybone

Herring Pairing

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Not something to aspire to

To the editor:

Noel van Swol is quoted in the September 24 issue of The River Reporter as saying, “this area is little Texas.” So I decided to learn more, and I googled “Texas has the highest.”

Texas has the highest poverty rate in the nation. Texas has the highest rate of child hunger in America. Texas has the highest teen birth rate in the United States. Texas has the highest number of uninsured citizens, the highest national rate of uninsured children and the highest rate of people without health insurance. Texas has the highest home insurance rates and the highest foreclosure rate in the United States. Texas has the highest number of alcohol-related traffic deaths and injuries, the highest rate of criminals executed and the highest percentage of churchgoers in the United States. Texas has the highest number of violations under the Voting Rights Act. Texas has the highest carbon output in America.