For our society to continue to function, the law must mean what it says. As we let the law become a function of what bureaucrats and politicians like to pretend that it means, as ratified by lawyers and judges, power shifts away from the people (who can only read what the law says) to those who have the resources to bend the plain language of the law. As a nation we’re already way too far down that path.
I bring this up because of this line in Donita Naylor’s article in today’s Providence Journal, concerning the possibility that Democrat Representative John Carnevale (Providence, Johnston) does not live in the district that he supposedly represents (emphasis added):
According to state law, a voter can have only one “fixed and established domicile,” and using false information to register or to vote is a felony. A voter who moves is required to register at the new address. It’s considered perjury if a lawmaker fails to report a property other than a primary residence to the Ethics Commission.
The italicized sentence is substantiated by Rhode Island General Law 17-9.1-16(b)(1), which reads, in part:
A voter who has moved his or her residence, as defined in § 17-1-3.1, from the address at which the voter is registered to another within a different city or town shall be required to register in the city or town to which the voter has moved …
Next question: How does 17-1-3.1 define “residence”?
A person’s residence for voting purposes is his or her fixed and established domicile. The determinant of one’s domicile is that person’s factual physical presence in the voting district on a regular basis incorporating an intention to reside for an indefinite period. This domicile is the place to which, upon temporary absence, he or she has the intention of returning. Once acquired, this domicile continues until another domicile is established.
So, as long as Carnevale steps foot (figuratively speaking) in the district periodically and intends for that district to be his one and only true home, his registration remains valid.
Granted, the representative’s case is an extreme one, and suspicious, but generally this makes sense. A young adult who goes elsewhere for college, but who intends never to leave his or her hometown for good shouldn’t lose his or her voting rights in that home. In Tiverton, we have an ongoing question about a voter who has multiple properties in town, but also in a nearby Massachusetts town, and my argument has been that we want people to have flexibility in their living arrangements and plans. A resident who starts a bed-and-breakfast elsewhere, for example, may find it convenient to spend a great deal of time at that residence, even renting out his or her official residence, but it would amount to disenfranchisement to declare that he or she cannot consider the original town to be home — the place where he or she wants a say when it comes to self-government.
Of course, it would not be an unreasonable opinion to suggest that Carnevale may be engaged in a kind of fraud when it comes to voting, but the law explicitly makes the determining factor his intention, and we don’t want to empower government agents or judges to tell people what their intentions are. In this case, there appear to be multiple other areas in which the law may have something to say about Carnevale’s behavior, but the remedy on the eligibility to live in one district while representing another ought to be political. Vote him out, and we’ll likely find that he’s willing to consider his new district his home.