PROVINCETOWN — It’s town meeting season on Cape Cod — which means that in addition to the gray skies, spring blossoms, and allergy attacks, there’s another perennial popping up: questions about who can vote here.
In Wellfleet, the whispers have focused on who might be declaring the town their official residence in order to vote against the 20 overrides on the town meeting warrant. In Truro, there has been intense energy focused on Article 40, which would require dogs to be fenced or leashed at all times. In Provincetown, voter turnout at town meeting was the highest in years, and some wondered aloud how many of the voters who initially took seats in the balcony — a place from which you cannot cast a vote — were first-timers.
These questions are not just perennials here — they are practically historic. In 2003, Cape Cod Times columnist Jim Coogan wrote that President Grover Cleveland, who bought a house in Bourne between his two terms in office and maintained it as a “summer White House” during his second term, was not allowed to vote in Bourne or speak at town meeting, even when he was president.
Cleveland’s official residence was in New Jersey. He was a model summer resident and supportive of town projects, Coogan wrote; even so, his complaints about shellfishermen on the beach near his house got a chilly reception from the Bourne selectmen.
The rules on voter residency are published by the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Elections Division. They make clear that for voting purposes every person may have only one residence at a time. Registering to vote in a new place invalidates one’s registration in any other.
Nonetheless, at the heart of the rules there is some ambiguity.
“It is essential to understand that residence is an objective concept,” the state’s guidebook says. “What counts is not where a person thinks his or her residence is, or wants it to be, but rather where the objective facts show it is.” At the same time, “there is no clear-cut definition of residency,” the guide says. “The concept of a person’s residence is fact specific to each particular case.” It also states: “These terms have been the subject of much litigation.”
The document provides guidance on a range of complex situations, including those affecting students, prisoners, people living abroad, people on long-term work assignments, and homeless people. The section on part-time residents is relatively brief.
“It is not true that people who live part of the time in different places may simply pick one of them as their legal residence,” the guidebook says. “Rather, residence is determined by examining all the factual circumstances which indicate where their home actually is.
“Although the relative amount of time people live in various places is not conclusive, it is an important factor to be considered,” the paragraph concludes. “It is unlikely that many people will have their home in a community where they live only during the summer months.”
At one point, Massachusetts had a law that required six months’ residency in a town in order to register to vote; that was determined to be an unconstitutional infringement on voting rights in the early 1970s.
People who move to a new home can immediately register to vote there; people who are in a summer home that is not their permanent residence cannot.
The town clerks of Wellfleet, Eastham, and Provincetown all said that while people may gossip online about improperly registered voters hardly anyone ever calls with a serious inquiry. Formal challenges to voter registrations are nearly unheard of.
“You’ll find a lot of Facebook warriors, and not a lot of people picking up the phone and actually calling the proper channels,” said Liz Paine, Provincetown’s town clerk.
There is a disturbing surge of new voter registrations — one that has caused Paine and many other town clerks some serious aggravation. It is due to the state government, however, and the voters involved often don’t even know about it, Paine said.
“The state is trying to actively get people registered, and they have connected the Registry of Motor Vehicles, MassHealth, and the state’s voter registration server,” Paine said. As a result, the town is getting a flood of new registrations, but “90 percent of them are duplicates of people who are already registered here,” said Paine.
Jennifer Congel, the town clerk in Wellfleet, pointed out that even with the surge of registrations, the overall number of voters on her roll isn’t changing.
“We still hover around 3,087” voters, Congel said. “It ebbs and flows, there are people coming and people leaving,” but the voter roll does not swell suspiciously when town meeting season arrives, she said.
“It’s actually been quieter this year, compared to the Covid years” when many people really were relocating to Cape Cod, Congel said.
Dealing with the new automatically generated voter registrations is onerous, Eastham Town Clerk Cindy Nicholson said. People who weren’t already on the town’s rolls receive a confirmation of registration letter, which is “usually when we find out that it was a second-home owner who garages a car here, and they didn’t intend to do that.”
The people who didn’t intend to move their registration here are happy to see it moved back, she added.
“We’ve been caught in a loop,” Nicholson said. But she seemed unfazed: “Technology change is always painful.”
This will be Nicholson’s last election. She is handing over the clerk’s office to her deputy, Linda Sassi, later this spring. “We’re already building up for 2024,” Nicholson said. “We have three ballot tabulators, so we’ll be ready.”