Voting Rights Along the Border


Some issues fall so closely along fault lines of one’s philosophy that it doesn’t matter how local or insignificant they are; when once one hears of them, it becomes necessary to work out one’s beliefs about them.  I’ve been deeply distracted for the past day by the curious case of Jonathan Cottrell in Tiverton, and I’ve posted a detailed summary on Tiverton Fact Check.

He’s been a Tiverton resident for decades and currently serves on the town’s Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee.  Now, he’s applying to join the town’s Planning Committee, too, which puts him within firing range of the sides in the Tiverton Glen development controversy.  Among people who disagree with his previous votes on the CPAC (about which I know nothing), it has now become an active attack that he doesn’t actually live in town and shouldn’t be eligible to vote.  The issue has gone so far as to lead the Tiverton Board of Canvassers to schedule a hearing in September to review evidence about Cottrell’s circumstances and rights.

In a nutshell, it looks to me as if Rhode Island law holds somebody to be an elector, once he or she has legitimately registered, until such time as he or she declares a different “domicile” or registers to vote elsewhere.  And that seems appropriate, to me.

Cottrell’s living situation is very unique.  Even his address in Tiverton falls in a gray area, because it’s a multi-use property listed as a range of street numbers, and he picked the number that’s used on the commercial building as the most convenient address for the lot.  Moreover, it appears that, as the decades have rolled along, his family has purchased property a short distance over the border, in Swansea, and has used that address for a few non-official purposes.

I wouldn’t be surprised, for example, if they drifted toward making Swansea their “domicile” when their son reached full adulthood and their daughter went off to boarding school and then drifted back to homely feelings toward Tiverton some years later, having never made the decision to switch official.  A variance request to put more rentals on their Tiverton property was denied in February, and they put their main Swansea house on the market last month.

But the options their considering for their future are not really anybody’s business.  In a free society, people shouldn’t have to submit their every life decision and feeling for government scrutiny.

It’s one thing for the government to have rules about its own right to collect tax money from a person, calling them full-year residents if they’re in the state for a certain number of days.  It’s another to wrap people up in what I’ve called a political Twister game in which the government can take away their basic right to vote if they cross some gray area of the law.