The other day I received an email from the infamous Lawyer X, who suggested I may have got it wrong in implying that registering at a PO Box is necessarily improper, as the GOP contends. He pointed me towards the WAC:
Registering to vote — Nontraditional address. No person registering to vote, who meets all the qualifications of a registered voter in the state of Washington, shall be disqualified because of a nontraditional physical address being used as a residence address. Nontraditional addresses may include shelters, parks or other identifiable locations which the voter deems to be his/her residence. Voters using such an address will be registered and precincted based on the location provided. Voters without a traditional address will be registered at the county courthouse, city hall or other public building near the area that the voter considers his/her residence. Registering at a nontraditional address will not disqualify a voter from requesting ongoing absentee voter status provided the voter designates a valid mailing address.
Let’s parse this, shall we?
The first sentence is absolutely clear that a voter may not be disqualified for using a “nontraditional physical address” as a residence address. The second sentence defines nontraditional addresses as “identifiable locations which the voter deems to be his/her residence.” I don’t think there’s much of an argument there.
But it’s the third and fourth sentences that are key to understanding the GOP challenge.
Voters using such an address will be registered and precincted based on the location provided.
It doesn’t take a legal degree to dissect this sentence, just a basic understanding of grammar. “Will be registered” is in the future progressive tense, whereas “location provided” is in the simple past tense. Thus, these instructions can only be understood to be directed at elections workers, acting in the future, based on information provided by voters in the past.
You see, voters don’t register to vote (let alone precinct themselves)… they merely fill out forms applying for registration. The actual act of registering and precincting the voter is then conducted by elections workers, based on information provided by the voter on the form. This brings us to the fourth sentence, the one that the GOP relies on to disqualify many of the challenged voters.
Voters without a traditional address will be registered at the county courthouse, city hall or other public building near the area that the voter considers his/her residence.
In the context of the previous sentence, the future progressive “will be registered” can only be understood as an instruction to elections workers, not voters. I’m not exactly sure what the purpose of this particular provision is — perhaps its merely an accommodation to the computer systems — but the failure of a voter with a nontraditional address to be registered at a public building is not a failure of the voter. Take a look at the voter registration form as defined in WAC 434-324-050: nowhere on it is any mention of nontraditional addresses, or registering at public buildings… or even, an explicit instruction to the voter that he cannot list a mailbox number or storage facility as his address.
Upon close reading, the WAC simply does not require voters with nontraditional addresses to list the address of a public building as his residence on the voter registration form. Indeed, it would be impossible do so, as the form does not accommodate both the address of the location he deems to be his residence and the address of a nearby public building on the same line. If the WAC requires the voter to be registered at a public building, fulfilling this requirement would clearly be the responsibility of the election worker who processed the registration card… and an election official’s error is not sufficient reason to toss out a ballot from an otherwise qualified voter.
Thus, according to Lawyer X, challenged voters like Terri Carpenter and David Combs, who both have nontraditional addresses, are free to register at a PO Box, if that is the location they deem to be their residence… regardless of whether they can physically reside inside.
Residency is a state of mind, not pinned to an exact location. This is particularly true where the person has no other residence. When you are dealing with a homeless person, and where the GOP has made no effort to show the person has any other residence, the residence has to be the address provided by the voter. Every citizen of the state is entitled to vote. They can’t have it taken away because they do not own or lease property. Unless someone shows a voter has some other residence, the one the voter provided is it.
In this context it becomes all the more clear why the challenge statute requires the challenger to provide the actual address of the voter in question, because without it one can never truly determine that the location provided, whatever its dimensions, is not in fact the location the voter deems to be his residence. And so it seems likely that should the canvassing board follow the letter of the law, voters like Carpenter and Combs will survive the GOP’s challenge, as will other voters for whom the Republicans cannot prove, by clear and convincing evidence, their actual address.
And once again, the only thing the GOP will succeed in proving, is that administering elections is a lot more complicated than they pretend.