Some Longtime D.C. Residents Still Vote In Other States. Is That ... Legal? | WAMC

Some Longtime D.C. Residents Still Vote In Other States. Is That ... Legal?

Jun 27, 2020
Originally published on June 28, 2020 2:07 pm

Some residents of Washington, D.C., have lived there for years but still cast their votes from elsewhere in the United States.

D.C. is home to over 700,000 people, a population greater than Wyoming and Vermont — but unlike citizens in those states, D.C. residents don't have anyone voting for their interests in Congress.

That situation is unlikely to change anytime soon, even with a historic vote in the House on Friday to grant D.C. statehood, because of opposition to the legislation by the Senate and the White House.

All this means some District residents go through complicated lengths in an effort to have their vote count at the federal level.

Katherine Abughazaleh is one of those voters. She says her decision to stay registered in Texas came down to wanting to feel like her vote matters.

"Especially in Dallas, you have a lot more voting power. In 2018, our representative changed from red to blue and I wanted to be a part of that," Abughazaleh says. "If I were a D.C. voter, I wouldn't have someone to call and say 'vote this way.' Right now, I can call my congressman and say, 'I want you to support this' or 'I don't want you to support that.' "

Kate, a Republican who works in D.C. as a political consultant, also votes in her home state of Tennessee. She asked NPR only to use her first name, out of concerns she might be skirting voting laws.

For Kate, the choice centers more on her interest in the local politics of her hometown than on big national factors.

"[The District] is blue enough that no matter how I vote, it's not going to change it. Where I'm from in Tennessee, it's red enough that no matter how I vote, it's not going to change it," Kate chuckles. "Voting for small, local town stuff — I feel like my opinion is more valid in those politics than in these."

These types of reasoning frustrate Robert C. White Jr., who serves as one of D.C.'s at-large council members.

"I'm always disappointed when folks live in D.C. but don't vote here, because if you call D.C. home, then you have to join our struggle," he says. "If folks want voting representation, then the work they have to do is not maintain voting elsewhere but to work with us to get the representation that we deserve."

Rebecca — who also asked NPR only to use her first name out of potential legal concerns — came to D.C. for college seven years ago and says she feels guilty about continuing to vote in Georgia.

"I feel a little like I'm rigging the system," she says. "But when I remember that Congress is rigging the system by not allowing D.C. congressional representation and voting power and statehood, it kind of justifies what I'm doing."

Beneath what she called indignation about D.C.'s status is confusion, too — as to whether or not she's breaking the law.

"I do feel like my home is my family home in Georgia. I pay rent in D.C., but I'm just here temporarily," Rebecca says. "If someone were to question me legally, I don't know what the actual legal definition of living somewhere is."

Intention is everything

The answer to that lies in the gray areas of state residency laws.

"Most states have a law that says something about either you reside there or you intend to return," says David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.

Becker also led the development of the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, which helps states correct out-of-date voter records, as well as register new eligible voters.

"If a person lives in the District of Columbia and can claim residency legally in another state ... and only votes there, there is nothing illegal or improper about that," he says.

That the voter only votes in their former state is key, as many states do have laws that explicitly ban double voting.

'Intent to return' covers various groups of people who live in one place but consider their permanent home to be elsewhere, including military families who relocate often, college students and snow birds.

Becker cautioned against inflating the effects of the small percentage of people in D.C. who engage in this practice.

"The number of people who are voting somewhere other than their legal residency is infinitesimally small," he says. "The number of people who may be voting somewhere other than where they're currently putting their head at night might be somewhat larger than that."

Many state laws take a broad perspective about what it means for someone to intend to return someday.

"The states have decided how they're going to define residency and most have defined residency as an attempt to return. ... They can always change that," Becker said. "But most states haven't. And probably because this is something that members of both parties are doing."

The gray area also makes potential legal challenges difficult, because a state would have to prove that a voter never intended to one day return.

Actual voter fraud in U.S. elections is very rare.

Becker says the issues with U.S. elections don't have anything to do with a small group of D.C. voters who want to have a say in who is elected to Congress — it's that much of the rest of the country chooses not to be engaged at all.

"The biggest problem in the United States is not that we have people too willing to register and go out of their way to register in a particular way and go out of their way to vote in more and more elections; that is not the problem," Becker says. "If that were the problem, we'd have a far different country. We wouldn't have 60% maximum turnout in a presidential election."

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The House today approved a bill that would make the District of Columbia the country's 51st state. But it probably won't become law. D.C.'s unusual status has prompted some residents, even those who've called D.C. home for years, to vote from states outside of the District in an effort to have more of a voice in elections. That may not be exactly legal, as NPR's Barbara Sprunt reports.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: D.C. is home to over 700,000 people. That's a bigger population than that of Wyoming and Vermont. But unlike those states, D.C. residents don't have the ability to elect senators or a congressional representative with voting power. That's caused some to keep their voter registration active in the state they lived in before coming to the nation's capital. Katherine Abu Ghazaleh falls into that category. She's registered in Texas.

KATHERINE ABU GHAZALEH: Especially in Dallas, you have a lot more voting power. If I were a D.C. voter, I wouldn't have someone to call to say, vote this way. Right now I can call my congressman when I say, I want you to support this, or I don't want you to support that.

SPRUNT: She says the allure of voting in a purpling state trumps voting in D.C., which overwhelmingly votes Democratic.

ABU GHAZALEH: In D.C., it's most likely going to go blue for the president. If there even a chance of turning Texas blue, I want to be a part of it.

SPRUNT: Kate, a Republican who works in D.C. as a political consultant, also votes in her home state - Tennessee. She asked NPR only to use her first name out of concern she might be skirting voting laws.

KATE: I know what the landscape there looks like a little better than here. The community politics and, like, voting for, like, small, local town stuff, I feel like my opinion is more valid in those politics than in these.

SPRUNT: These kinds of arguments frustrate Robert White, who serves as one of D.C.'s at-large councilmembers.

ROBERT WHITE: I'm always disappointed when the folks who live in D.C. but don't vote here because if you call D.C. home, then you have to join our struggle. If folks want voting representation, then the work they have to do is not maintain voting elsewhere, but to work with us to get the representation that we deserve.

SPRUNT: Rebecca came to D.C. for college seven years ago. She also asked NPR only to use her first name out of potential legal concerns and says sometimes she feels guilty about continuing to vote in Georgia.

REBECCA: I feel a little like I'm kind of rigging the system. I feel like my home is my family home in Georgia. Like, I pay rent in D.C., but I'm just here temporarily. Like, if someone were to question me that legally, like, I don't know what the actual legal definition of a living somewhere is.

SPRUNT: So what is the definition?

DAVID BECKER: It all depends on the residence laws in the state. Most states have a law that says something about either you reside there or you intend to return.

SPRUNT: That's David Becker. He's the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. Intent to return covers people who live in one place but consider their permanent home to be elsewhere, like military families who relocate often, college students and snowbirds. Becker says it can also apply to voters like Rebecca who plan on returning to their home state down the road, so long as they're not voting in two places. But state laws create grey areas, and that makes legal challenges difficult. Becker says while a small percentage of D.C. residents may engage in this practice, it shouldn't be seen as voter fraud, and that actual voter fraud is very rare.

BECKER: The number of people who are going out of their way to try to game the system, risking possibly violating federal or state laws if they truly don't reside in a state and risking the possibility of multiple years in prison and many thousands of dollars in fines for the right to cast one additional ballot in an election in which 150 million might be cast, not a realistic threat to our system.

SPRUNT: The bigger problem with U.S. elections, he says, isn't that some people in D.C. want their vote to mean something. Becker says it's that there are millions of eligible voters who choose not to vote at all.

Barbara Sprunt, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.