Without Senators, D.C. Residents Look Elsewhere to Vote

Pat McMahon Contributor
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WASHINGTON — Alex lives in Washington but votes at a church in Virginia. Kathleen signed a lease here but casts her ballot in Pennsylvania. Nicolas moved to the nation’s capital a year ago, but his polling place is in Connecticut.

Washington may be a home for some city dwellers, but it isn’t where their vote will count during Tuesday’s midterm elections. Some residents eligible to vote in the city choose to vote in another place they have a tie to, saying one reason not to vote in Washington is it would mean giving up their vote in Congress.

People who live in the nation’s capital can vote for president and local offices like mayor. But they have no senators representing them, and their one House member can’t vote on the House floor. Close races in November are virtually unheard of in the overwhelmingly Democratic city. So some of the city’s 600,000 residents go out of their way to vote somewhere they think they can make more of a difference. It may seem like manipulating the system — but it can be legal, depending on a person’s circumstances and the laws in the states where they vote.

“I can’t think of any of my friends who vote in D.C.,” said Kathleen Danielson, 22, who graduated from George Washington University earlier this year and now lives in the city’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, about two miles from the White House.

Danielson hasn’t changed her voter registration from the Pennsylvania town where she grew up, where corn grows in local fields and there are dairy farms nearby. She says she just hasn’t gotten around to switching her residency since graduating and doesn’t like that she’d lose her representation in Congress if she switched.

For people like Danielson, just out of school or perhaps in a temporary job, it can be hard to know where it’s OK to vote. In Michigan, for instance, state law suggests a person must regularly sleep in the state and keep their possessions there to be eligible to vote.

Other states have broader definitions, saying people can vote there if they intend to return or haven’t decided that their new residence will be permanent. Figuring out intent can be subjective and tricky, though where a person gets a driver’s license, pays taxes and owns property are telling clues.

A voter’s intent can also change over time, said Myrna Perez, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York whose work focuses on voting access and election law. But Perez said election laws are “not supposed to be exploited and used for gamesmanship purposes.”

“They’re supposed to be a true reflection of where the voter intends at that time to be a part of,” she said.

For voters, the effort required to cast a ballot elsewhere varies. Some out-of-state voters have an absentee ballot sent to their family’s house, and a relative then sends it to them. Others have absentee ballots sent directly to their D.C. address.

Some, like Virginia voter Alex Bea, 27, don’t have to travel far and simply go back to their hometowns.

“I knew that if I moved into D.C. … I wouldn’t want to lose that voice in Congress, that representation,” said Bea, who has had a D.C. address for about a year and does advocacy work for an environmental campaign.

Ilir Zherka, the executive director of D.C. Vote, which advocates for voting members of Congress for D.C., said he runs into people several times a year that have a D.C. address but vote elsewhere. Sometimes, he said, they may just be lazy in not switching addresses, but the fact D.C. doesn’t have representation in Congress provides an incentive not to switch. That may make the issue more pronounced in D.C.

“I don’t know how prevalent the problem is,” he said. “It does not seem to be on anyone’s radar screen.”

For voters who do bend the truth to register elsewhere there is likely little consequence. Ballots can be challenged and votes disqualified, but that’s rare and punishments rarer still. For voters themselves, knowing if they are in the right can be difficult, and many just go with their gut.

“For the time being, seeing as I’ve bounced around so much, I still consider Connecticut home,” said Nicolas Curdumi, 24-year-old sales representative who still has a Connecticut driver’s license and is on his family’s cell phone plan, with a Connecticut area code.

He has some company voting out of state. Both his roommates do — one in Michigan and the other in Pennsylvania. Curdumi is particularly interested in the Connecticut senate race this year between Republican Linda McMahon, a former wrestling executive, and Democrat Richard Blumenthal, the state’s attorney general, but he said he is unsure how long he’ll vote in the state.

“I don’t know what’s to stop me,” he said. “One day I’ll show up to vote somewhere or send in my absentee and they’ll say, ‘Sorry.”