CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - County Registrar Joy Erb has sorted through all sorts of documents over the years trying to figure out where would-be Cape May County voters actually live. But one stands out.
"I had a North Wildwood voter with a North Wildwood address and a Pennsylvania driver's license," Erb said.
She had never seen a Pennsylvania driver's license bearing a Garden State address before, but that and other information put the voter in North Wildwood and he was allowed to vote.
And that's how it goes, on a case-by-case basis, as the County Board of Elections faces the task of determining if each of the county's more than 67,500 registered voters can legally vote in Cape May County.
"Our job is to protect the right of the voter," Erb said.
"But we also have to protect the integrity of the election," added fellow Registrar Michael Kennedy.
That's where the three-page domicile questionnaire comes into the picture.
"It's where you sleep. It's where your taxes are filed," Kennedy said as he tried to explain what the term domicile means in election law.
"The law says you must vote from where you're domiciled," he said.
It's a simple question, really: Where do you live?
But the answer is often complicated in a county full of second homeowners with ties to other states such as neighboring Pennsylvania.
Some voters don't want to give up their addresses in other states because of pension concerns or the cost of New Jersey car insurance. But they want to vote on the issues that matter in the New Jersey towns where they spend some of their time.
"They want the best of both worlds," Erb said. "You can't have both."
Each election season, the board is faced with registrations that send up red flags, such as out-of-state driver's licenses and out-of-state mailing addresses.
That's when they turn to the domicile questionnaire, a form that can trace its roots to the early 1990s, when a wave of nonresident property owners in Sea Isle City registered to vote.
"That brought to light the problem of people registering in two places," Kennedy said.
To combat the problem, the board developed the questionnaire designed to determine a voter's actual domicile.
The form asks voters for details including but not limited to:
- your voting address
- your home address
- where your place of business is
- the address you use for federal income tax purposes
- the address on your driver's license
- the name and address of any schools your children attend.
The board sends the forms out with hopes of receiving a response within 14 days. If none arrives, they send out a second and then a third letter urging voters to contact them.
"We try to give the voter all the chances we can. The last thing we want to do is remove a voter who should vote," Kennedy said.
Once the forms are returned, the answers are reviewed by the four-member election board to determine if a voter is actually entitled to vote in Cape May County.
With May elections just around the corner, the board has already sent at least a dozen domicile forms to Wildwood voters and more than two dozen to potential Sea Isle City voters.
Those numbers are not unusual. The board sent about 200 domicile forms to West Wildwood voters in the town's recent recall elections. That accounted for nearly half of the community's 476 registered voters.
Take the case of the West Wildwood Dec. 7 recall election and property owners David and Marilyn Whitebread. The couple appeared before the Election Board in January after not being allowed to vote in the small borough's hotly contested recall race.
At the board meeting, then-Board Secretary J.B. Feeley explained the board's position.
"We reviewed the domicile. Everything indicates you live in Schwenksville, Pa.," Feeley told the couple.
Marilyn Whitebread told the board they were living in West Wildwood at the time of the Nov. 16 voter registration cut off, but the board said the documentation they had still suggested Schwenksville was their home.
Feeley pointed to the couple's Pennsylvania phone numbers, driver's licenses and Pennsylvania voter registration.
"Very little, if any, pointed to West Wildwood," Feeley said.
He suggested they get New Jersey driver's licenses and car insurance.
"So it looks like it hinges on the driver's license," Marilyn Whitebread said.
The response was a collective "no" from the board and the two registrars.
Deputy Attorney General Andrew Walko, who was at the meeting on the board's behalf, said it is a collection of factors that demonstrated where a voter's domicile is.
"There is no one magic document," Walko told the couple.
Instead, the board needs to see "things that show an intent to remain at a particular place," Walko said.
Kennedy pointed out that the issue was something that had to be addressed at nearly every election.
"Domicile is a huge issue, not just in West Wildwood," Kennedy said.
And as another election season arrives, it is an issue that will not go away.
The Board of Elections staff runs regular reports showing new registrations, and those that raise questions will trigger the mailing of a domicile questionnaire.
Most people, Erb and Kennedy agreed, are truthful on the forms, which do warn that fraudulent registrations can lead to fines and up to five years in prison.
The board does not have an investigative team, but the registrars do go out and check on residences as needed to see if the address on a voter registration form is the actual home of the voter.
"We don't have a huge staff to go out and knock on doors, but we do the best we can," Erb said, adding, "The voter has some obligation to tell the board where they live."
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