Am I not allowed to vote in my local elections?
January 2, 2018 7:19 AM   Subscribe

I live in Town A. (I pay taxes to Town A, Town A is my school district, I have to abide by the property laws of Town A, etc.) My voting district assignment has me vote in Town B. This means that I vote for Town B's local officials, not Town A's. So, I have no local representatives. I'm kinda new to politics/elections/voting/etc., but is this... normal? reasonable? Is there anything I can do about it? How do voting districts get set in the first place (and why was mine set wrong)?

I discovered all this when I went to vote last November and didn't recognize any of the names for the local officials. (I had spent the weeks prior researching candidates like a responsible adult! I was so proud of myself until I got to the voting booth.)

I contacted the County Board of Elections and they told me "yes, that's correct." They dismissed me when I pressed further.

I live in (rural, upstate) New York State.

By "town," I mean the administrative subdivision below "county."

This situation is particularly distressing to me since the town is passing laws restricting solar installations while I am trying to install solar panels, and I'd like to yell at them about it.
posted by ragtag to Law & Government (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Are you on the border of both towns? Are there city assessors or clerks in these townships? Either Town A improperly assumes you are part of Town A or Town B doesn't properly assume you are a part of Town B, and someone kinda official between these two towns needs to look at the borders and your property and straighten this out.

I'd potentially contact a lawyer. I know MeFi is quick to jump to this, but I think a lawyer could maybe have something like this straightened out for you.
posted by zizzle at 7:42 AM on January 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

This seems wrong, I would think. That said, things are weird in New England (and particularly in upstate NY) as far as towns/villages/counties, so I'm wondering if you don't actually live in the Town that you think you live in.

An example: I live in southwestern VT, but just over the border in NY, there is the Village of Cambridge. The Village of Cambridge is half in the Town of Cambridge and half in the Town of White Creek. Most of the businesses in the Village of Cambridge are actually in the Town of White Creek. That said, my friends who live in the Village of Cambridge and Town of White Creek are absolutely allowed to vote for the people who make the laws that apply to them, so something seems funky with your towns. The repercussions that you describe (i.e. not having a voice in electing the people who make the laws that apply to you) seem not OK.

I wouldn't take the County Board of Elections as the final answer here; what you've described sounds fishy and I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't entirely understand your question. Perhaps you're voting in the right district but the laws you think apply to you don't actually apply to you. Have you talked to your neighbors? This seems like something that someone would be aware of.
posted by Betelgeuse at 7:43 AM on January 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I am a voting official in a neighboring state. This does happen. Voting districts do not always 100% overlap with town borders though usually when we see something like this happening it's because someone has a large parcel and the house is in one part and the majority of the land is in another. So I guess I'd be asking you if you have an idea of how this happened since that will help you fight it if you need to. That is: are you right on the town line? Do you vote in your town (i.e. is the polling station in Town A or B)? Do you know if your neighbors vote in Town A or B? Is the information correct on your voter registration (you can check here)?

You might have more luck with your question if you asked the state "How did this happen?" You could also contact the Civil Rights division at which is usually for disenfranchisement questions but I think applies here as well. Keep in mind that residence in a location and tax paying in a location are more than enough to give you a legit reason to hassle elected officials about what you would like them to do regarding political decisions. You don't need to tell them that you vote in Town B.
posted by jessamyn at 7:43 AM on January 2, 2018 [19 favorites]

If you've been sending your kids to Town A's schools, or they are better or more convenient, you might want to tread carefully. Were it determined that you are actually in Town B's school district, Town A school district could hit you with a large (retroactive) assessment for tuition, and your kids/those of a property buyer from you would then have to go to Town B schools.
posted by MattD at 7:53 AM on January 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

Hmm. Around here, there's a few municipalities called towns that are adjacent to (or enclaves of) various cities.

The town of Brookfield*, for example, is composed of three-ish discrete pieces. The northern pieces are within the city of Brookfield, and the southern piece is within the city of Waukesha. So if you live in the north, you have a (city of) Brookfield mailing address, attend the (city of) Brookfield schools, but vote for town of Brookfield officials and pay the town's taxes.

But, if you live in the bigger southern part, you (generally) have a Waukesha mailing address, (might) attend Waukesha schools, and again vote for town of Brookfield officials and pay their taxes. But you'll get stuff in the mail from Waukesha County (which is home to both Brookfields as well), and probably get stuff from the City of Waukesha parks department, etc.

And that doesn't even get into the town of Waukesha! ....or the unrelated Village of Brookfield in Illinois...

So all that said, on occasion there are arguments about who gets services from which municipality, sometimes based on maps, sometimes based on convenience. And sometimes there are just weird boundaries that overlap. Which leads me to wonder a couple things:
1) Any chance there's an obnoxious naming thing going on, like with Brookfield, and maybe you don't live in the municipality you thought you did? Which you reasonably thought because they were incorrectly collecting your taxes?
2) Regardless of naming, is the Board of Elections missing something about boundaries? For example, which side of the street you're on?
3) Are two municipalities so tightly coupled that you may live in one, but get services from the other, so you actually vote for those officials? That still seems a little off, but could maybe point you towards some possible answers. I know the two Brookfields are always in a bit of dance about merging, and the split school districts thing definitely leads to some interesting voting boundaries.

*Home of Ma Ingalls!
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 8:03 AM on January 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

I live in the same rough area and have encountered every combination of voting district, post office, school district, fire department coverage, etc, etc being at odds with other ones. There are often historical and/or practical reasons for the lines being drawn the way they are, but it is super confusing.

Just because you don't vote in that town's elections doesn't mean you can't participate in that town's government however, by attending town board meetings and contacting reps in the town you reside in. You could also contact the town rep you DO vote for, or any reps for the overall county that might be able to help sort out the best approach.
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:04 AM on January 2, 2018 [8 favorites]

Not sure what's to be done about it, but echoing tchemgrrl about how common this is in New York State. I've lived in two houses pain my current town, and the situation was roughly the same in both of them. Physically located in the limits of town A, zip code is town B, telephone exchange is town C, etc.

There's a polling place at the retirement complex half a mile down the road from me, also within the physical limits of town A, but they're in the voting district for town be, so I have to go further away to vote.

At my last place, the children of my two Neighbors went to different schools even though they lived next door. It was a hilly road that's treacherous in winter, and you could see the dividing line between where the two towns were responsible for plowing and salting their different sections - one town had a decidedly larger road maintenance budget. There was a big fuss a few years back because one town was going to allow fracking, even though it would affect the water in the other town.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:58 AM on January 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

Just nth-ing that the detail of which election district you are in has absolutely nothing to do with whether you can & should get involve with the town that is banning solar. Just call, write letters, visit meetings, write letters to the editor of the local newspaper, organize together with other affected citizens, etc etc etc and never even bring up the fact of your voting district, whatever it is.

What counts here is that you are an affected citizen and that gives you every right you need to get involved in the process.
posted by flug at 9:34 AM on January 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

NYS is kind of screwy this way. Making matters worse is the distinction between towns and villages. The village of Saranac Lake, for example, is in three towns and two counties.

Your electoral district has representation for all districts you maybe in, including fire districts, school districts, special purpose districts, towns and counties. Memaul me and I can walk you through your own particular situation. I know the state very well.
posted by nothing.especially.clever at 10:06 AM on January 2, 2018

the town is passing laws restricting solar installations while I am trying to install solar panels, and I'd like to yell at them about it.

It seems that if you're officially a resident of Town B, then Town A's solar panel laws shouldn't affect you. If it's a matter of "oh, these three blocks of this street are part of Town B," then you should be looking into Town B's laws. If however, there's some weird zoning shenanigans that separate voting residency from citywide laws, then there's a problem, and the solution is probably "start with your secretary of state website, and look for a lawyer."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:18 AM on January 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

As someone who lives in a town in NYS and understands what it means as a local government unit, I call shenanigans. I've definitely seen "live in town A, but attend schools in town B due to arrangements between towns A & B", but I can't imagine not voting for my own town management. You said you called the county voting board; have you tried contacting your town? Our town government is very helpful/proactive.
posted by annabear at 12:02 PM on January 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Do you own your property? Look back at your tax bills and see to whom you are actually paying property taxes. Even though I pay my taxes through my mortgage servicer's escrow, I still get a copy of my town taxes sent to me directly. You should also be able to see through your mortgage servicer what taxes they are actually paying.

If none of that works, go to the Town B accessor or look at your town's web site (mine has a functioning online GIS system) to see the maps that actually show where the property sits.

The most likely situation is that you live in the post office area and school district with the same names as Town A, but the actual town you live in is Town B. As many people have mentioned above, this is pretty common in NY. So in that case I wouldn't be surprised if you're paying Town A School District taxes but Town B town taxes.

ErisLordFreedom, I think, is making the most sensible point though. If you're actually entirely in Town B, it doesn't matter since the law won't apply to you. If your property crosscuts the two towns it could be more complicated but in that case you are probably paying some taxes to both towns and should be able to discover that as you look back at your taxes.

If you don't own the property, speak with your landlord. They likely know what's going on.
posted by NormieP at 12:03 PM on January 2, 2018

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers, all, it's much appreciated.

A twist has just occurred: while it seemed like the Board of Elections was brushing me off (based on the unhelpful, dismissive answers they had been giving me), it turns out that they had started an investigation in the background. I just received an email from them saying "Oh, look, based on your tax history it appears you're part of Town A after all. We're updating our records."

As such, this appears to be case closed and I won't need to escalate to the state. (Though you better believe I've set reminders for the coming weeks to ensure that the records update actually happens.)

(Also, for fun and since it was asked: yes, I am right on the border of Town A and Town B (and, indeed, Towns C and D as well), and this was the likely cause of the confusion. There's even a big, square granite marker with a different town name engraved on each side next to my mailbox, which I think is kinda endearing.)
posted by ragtag at 12:14 PM on January 2, 2018 [21 favorites]

I read an article recently about some Northern Missouri residents that have Iowa mailing addresses (due to rural mail routes?), that create similar headaches. (article)
posted by ArgentCorvid at 1:26 PM on January 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: For posterity, I've been able to confirm as of today that my voting place records have been updated.
posted by ragtag at 12:58 PM on January 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

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