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Nov 25, 2008 9:50 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Court upholds voting rights for part-time residents

Nov 25, 2008 9:50 AM

A New York State Appellate Court last month upheld the rights of second-home owners to participate in elections in the towns they live in part-time, as long as they renounce their voting rights elsewhere.

The decision affirms what has been the status quo, but falls short of what some East End residents have pushed for: allowing part-time residents to vote in local elections at their second homes while still maintaining their voting rights at their primary residence.

The case started in Bovina, a scenic town in upstate New York, where a group of residents started a voter registration drive of part-time residents to influence the Town Board to adopt zoning rules that would make wind turbines illegal to effectively ban energy-producing wind farms.

Supporters of wind farms fired back by challenging the registrations of part-time residents, and the Bovina County Board of Elections removed more than 20 names from the rolls in a town with only 459 registered voters.

Eight of the purged voters took the Board of Elections to court and won, and in a decision dated October 22 the Appellate Division upheld the ruling.

Their “ties to Bovina were not a sham for voting purposes, but genuine, long-term contacts created out of a true desire to become part of the Bovina community,” the court opinion read.

The case is reflective of the situation on the South Fork, where in some villages the part-timers outnumber the full-time residents.

Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley said he supports the rights of part-time residents to register to vote in the village 100 percent. “The second-home owners pay a significant amount of taxes in the village and Southampton Town, and they really don’t take much from a service standpoint,” he said. Mr. Epley added that part-timers should have a voice in how their tax dollars are spent, as long as they are conforming to election law.

Bill Hattrick, a former Southampton Village mayor and former president of the local citizens group the Southampton Association, was disappointed that the court decision did not go even further. For many years, he has advocated part-timers getting the right to vote in village elections while retaining their registration at their primary residences.

Mr. Hattrick said he estimates 65 percent of Southampton Village homeowners are not registered to vote here, and he figures that candidates need to win the votes of only 7 or 8 percent of homeowners to get a seat on the Village Board.

“I don’t know what we have in Southampton Village, but we don’t have a democracy,” he said.

Mr. Hattrick also pointed out second-home owners’ substantial contributions to the village tax coffers. “They’re citizens all right at pay time,” he said.

The election laws have effectively eliminated democracy in seasonal villages, Mr. Hattrick said. “I’ll always be campaigning to change that, and I haven’t gotten anywhere up until now, and maybe I won’t.”

Now he is considering bringing the issue to the League of Women Voters in hopes it will take up his cause, he said.

Jay Diesing, the current president of the Southampton Association, said the group supports the cause “because we feel that everybody who lives here and pays taxes here should have a voice in government.”

He acknowledged it would be a hard feat to achieve. “It’s not something that can be done locally,” he said.

The association can still hold registration drives for part-timers over “lightning rod issues” it wants more people to vote on, Mr. Diesing said.

Christopher Kelley, a Springs attorney and former East Hampton Town Democratic Party chairman, said the party has been registering second-home owners in East Hampton for years. But he has never advocated dual registration and believes the law makes sense as it is.

“I think it’s more complicated than it may appear at face value,” he said of introducing dual registration.

Where voters are registered should be based on where they intend their permanent home to be, not where they spend more time, Mr. Kelley said. “No one can really make that choice for you,” he said. “The law allows you to make that choice.”

The current ruling is a fair compromise, he said.

Mr. Kelley noted that dual registration raises other questions. If homeowners rent out their house to someone else, should they still have the right to vote? he asked.

Tina Piette, the secretary of the East Hampton Republican Committee and also a Springs attorney, said she is interested to see if the court’s decision will be appealed again. She agreed with the court and said voters should be able to vote wherever the issues are most important to them. “You have one vote, and choose wisely,” she advised.

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