CLEVELAND, Tenn. – When your home is the open road, where do you register to vote?
A total of 286 people who live full-time in their recreational vehicles were dropped from the voter rolls in one Tennessee county over the past two years because they did not have a genuine home address, only a mailbox. That has left them unable to vote in national or local elections.
What happened in Tennessee may be an extreme case, but an Associated Press review of laws and policies across the nation found that election officials sometimes make it difficult for the nation’s thousands of devoted RVers to cast ballots.
Tennessee and Montana, for example, do not allow voters to list a commercial address, such as a mailbox service, unless they live there. Florida requires a permanent, stationary home address, but gives election officials some leeway. In Texas, thousands of RVers had their right to vote challenged in federal court, though they ultimately won.
“Americans should not be disqualified from voting because of their lifestyle choice to travel,” said Hedy Weinberg, director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee, which went to federal court Tuesday to challenge the purge of RVers in Tennessee’s rural Bradley County. “For our state and election commission to purge them from the list is unfair and is unconstitutional and flies in the face of our democracy as we know it.”
But some elections officials say that voters should have a real connection to the place where they are casting ballots, and that RVers are registering in certain states simply to avoid taxes. Some of them rarely, if ever, set foot in those states.
Many full-time RVers are registered in one of nine states that have no general personal income tax: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wyoming. (The RVers are still subject to federal taxes.)
The 286 dropped from the rolls in Bradley County listed their home address as that of a mail-forwarding service in Cleveland, Tenn., called Mail Call U.S.A., which charges $120 a year to receive, maintain and forward mail. The purge began after Tennessee tightened the residency law in 2005.
David Ellis, the former Bradley County Election Commission director who started removing full-time RVers, said they have no connection to the area and are simply “dodging their responsibility to pay their fair share” of taxes.
Full-time RVers roam the country, often spending a few weeks at a time at RV campgrounds, state parks or friends’ homes, where they can arrange to pick up their mail. Often, they pull over for the night in shopping center parking lots.
The Census says more than 105,000 Americans live full-time in RVs, boats or vans, though one RV group says the number is more like half a million. Because of their nomadic ways, pinning down their number with any certainty is difficult.
Similarly, it is hard to say exactly how many full-time RVers are unable to vote, since those who are turned down in one state can presumably go to another more willing to register them.
Some of the Bradley County RVers hold Tennessee driver’s licenses and register their vehicles in Tennessee. But they otherwise have no permanent presence in the state.
Retired Washington, D.C., policeman John T. Layton was among voters kicked off the rolls in Tennessee. Layton sold his Maryland home in 2004 and signed up with Mail Call U.S.A.
Layton, 69, said his son and grandchildren live in Chattanooga. He said he wanted an income-tax-free state, but never imagined he would lose his chance to cast a ballot. “I did research to make sure I have a constitutional right to vote,” he said.
There is no national standard for voter residency. Many places require a genuine physical address or some intent to become a permanent resident. But the rules differ by state, in some cases by county.
The actual decision is often left up to a county election official.
“We’re independent election officials. That gives us that final word,” said Pat Hollarn, who as supervisor of elections for Okaloosa County, Fla., allows some RVers to register if they are not on the rolls elsewhere.
A federal judge in Texas sided with more than 9,000 full-time RVers in 2000 when county officials challenged their eligibility to vote. The RVers used a mail-forwarding service.
Their attorney, Larry York, said the judge appeared to be convinced that the RVers had nowhere else to vote. “If not here, where?” York said.
In South Dakota, Minnehaha County Auditor Sue Roust said many full-time RVers are registered in her state and often list campgrounds as their home address, with as many as 1,100 of them at one site in Sioux Falls.
“A big concentration of RVers can throw an election,” she said.
In Polk County, Texas, Tax Assessor Marion “Bid” Smith said a large number of RVers are registered in the rural community about 75 miles from Houston – enough to “swing an election, really” – even though some don’t even visit once a year.
“I don’t have a problem with it,” he said. “Those people deserve to vote somewhere.”
Doug Lewis, director of the National Association of Election Officials, predicted the RVers in Tennessee would win in court, noting that homeless people have been allowed to say they live under a bridge.
“If the voter says they are not registered anywhere else and not trying to vote anywhere else, historically they win those cases,” Lewis said.
Sue Bray, a spokeswoman for the Ventura, Calif.-based Good Sam Club, which calls itself the world’s largest RV-owners organization, said there needs to be some kind of a national registration policy on RVers. “They definitely are picking on the wrong crowd,” she said. “You can’t find a more patriotic, involved kind of group.”