For nearly two hundred years, voting has predominantly been tied to fixed residency: citizens are entitled to vote in the districts in which they live. While seemingly a fair and direct application of the principle, “one person, one vote,” property owners are beginning to assert that their ownership of property in voting districts outside the one in which they live justifies extending them the right to vote in these districts as well.
So, does the right to vote – and should the right to vote – follow a citizen wherever he or she owns property? Addressing these questions requires a historical overview from the time of the country’s founding to the present day to determine not only what has served as the philosophical basis of the right to vote, but also who ought to decide these matters in the first place.
Taxation, property, and voting rights
“No taxation without representation” was a powerful slogan that encapsulated the colonists’ antipathy toward foreign control under the British crown. Once independence was achieved and the Constitution was ratified, the reverse of this slogan – “no representation without taxation” – became the norm in determining voter eligibility across the country.
The Constitution itself did not spell out who could and cannot vote (hence the subsequent adoption of numerous amendments clarifying this issue). Rather, the Constitution initially left it to the states to determine who was qualified to vote.
When the Constitution was drafted in 1787, all thirteen states had economic qualifications for voting: ten required the ownership of property, and three required tax payment.
Many of the Founders believed that only those with a demonstrable stake in the welfare of the state or country deserved the right to vote: otherwise, they argued, the poor would use their political power to extract wealth from the rich.
John Adams, for instance, feared that if all men were eligible to vote, then, “Debts would be abolished first; taxes laid heavy on the rich, and not at all on others; and at last a downright equal division of everything [would] be demanded and voted.”
While these requirements are seemingly harsh by today’s standards, historical evidence shows that the eligibility requirements were not terribly restrictive in most states. For example, in Rhode Island, adult males were considered eligible to take the freeman’s oath – and thus eligible to vote – if they possessed real estate worth £40 or rented for 40 shillings per year, criteria satisfied by three-fourths of adult white males in the state in 1788.
Also, in many states, enforcement of these requirements was weak, and inflation in the first few decades after the founding made it easier for voters to meet these stipulations.
Support for economic qualifications dwindled in the country’s early adolescence. Most of the states that joined the union in the late 1700s and early 1800s permitted universal white male suffrage, and the original states gradually phased out their property and taxation requirements (though in Rhode Island, it took the more tumultuous Dorr Rebellion of the early 1840s to precipitate this reform).
Pressure for these reforms came largely from populist forces, including the supporters of Jacksonian democracy. They argued that their membership in militias and the concentration of economic power in the hands of political elites justified eliminating these restrictions – so as to enfranchise and empower “the common man” – and giving all free adult white males the right to vote
By 1860, every state had abolished property requirements for voting, and only five required tax payment. It took the adoption of the 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964, to officially abolish the payment of any tax, including a poll tax, to qualify a U.S. citizen to vote in federal elections. Proof of established residence, or domicile, determined whether and where one was entitled to vote.
Yet this amendment is clearly based on the concept of federalism: it is silent on how states manage statewide and municipal elections and whether property ownership or tax payment can entitle one to vote outside one’s domicile-based voting district.
States, local elections, and the rights of property owners
In the 1960s, just as voting rights were undergoing major reform at the national level, some states began to devolve their power to counties and municipalities. Local governments that adopted home rule charters were given freedom – though in some cases rather limited freedom – to manage their own affairs.
Among the responsibilities that some local governments assumed was the authority to decide who could vote in their elections.
In 1961, for example, Delaware allowed municipalities with a population of at least 1,000 to create home rule charters. Such municipalities, for instance, were allowed to decide whether to permit non-residents the right to vote in local elections.
Connecticut’s statute is even more accommodating to non-residents than Delaware’s. According to state law, non-resident property owners are eligible to vote in a local election in any town, district, or subdivision if that entity taxed the individual at least $1,000. Exemptions are made, however, in cases when the state or local government has adopted a special act limiting voting only to residents.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Delaware, Connecticut, and New Mexico are the only three states in the country that allow non-residents to vote in municipal or town elections.
However, nine other states allow non-residents to vote in other limited cases. For instance, in Montana, non-resident property owners can vote in county and sewer districts, and in Arizona, they can vote in pest control, agricultural improvement, power, and water districts.
A growing movement?
In recent years, property owners across the country have called for expanding suffrage to non-residents. Following John Adams’s argument, they contend that their economic stake in a particular community entitles them to have a say in local affairs.
In 1995, this movement achieved its first major victory when the resort town of Mountain Village, Colorado took advantage of the state’s home rule provision and passed a charter that allowed non-residents to vote if they held at least 50 percent ownership stake in a local property.
Though the town’s voting age population was nearly evenly split between residents and non-residents, the latter group noted that because of the higher value of their properties, they paid eight times more in property taxes than the town’s residents and thus deserved suffrage.
The town’s residents went to court over the issue, claiming that non-residents were diluting their voting power. The courts ruled in May v. Town of Mountain Village that the charter had a “rational basis” in expanding suffrage to non-residents and thus ruled in favor of the property owners.
Since then, momentum has increased elsewhere. In 1996, property owners in Michigan sued four school districts in Leelanau County for imposing a “non-homestead” surtax on their second homes, claiming the higher tax rate on their property amounted to discrimination against non-residents, though the plaintiffs lost their case.
There is also a movement to extend voting rights to non-residents in New Jersey, especially along coastal shore towns where non-residents own a majority of the residential property. In Ocean City, for instance, a city council member proposed in 2014 a measure that would expand suffrage to non-residents who held at least 50 percent ownership stake in a local property and paid at least $1,000 in property taxes.
According to one estimate, more than 70 percent of the taxpaying property owners live outside the town’s 08226 zip code.
Despite the council’s rejection of the measure, support for the change appears to be growing in coastal New Jersey; especially as activists point to the voting rights of non-residents in beach towns in nearby Delaware, including in Bethany Beach and Dewey Beach.
Governor Chris Christie has said that he supports the idea “in theory,” but recognizes that such a change would require an amendment to the state constitution, which extends voting only for New Jersey residents.
The subject of expanding suffrage to non-residents has all of the ingredients of a controversial and highly political issue. Not only are there the complexities of a federalist system that leads to disputes among laws and officials at the state, county, and municipal levels, but there are also philosophical disagreements as to what justifies suffrage, as well as classist undertones as property owners assert their right to intercede in places they do not reside.
With Americans owning millions of vacation homes, investment properties, and out-of-district businesses – and with activists and legislators around the country advocating for the expansion of voting rights to non-residents, this issue could well be coming to a town near you.