Who is a resident? If only it were that easy

What is a resident?

Strange question, right? A resident is someone who resides in a particular place. Couldn’t be more simple.

If only it was that easy.

On Wednesday, Augusta was filled with college students from Lewiston. They were testifying against a bill that would specify how people living in dorms prove their Maine residency for voting purposes.

And you know what? They’ve got a point. The first draft of the law holds on-campus students to a higher standard than anyone else — including off-campus students — in the state. That probably runs afoul of the Maine Constitution’s requirement of equal treatment before the law.

But our Constitution also explicitly provides that merely attending school in Maine does not make you a resident. That is because residency is more than where you hang your hat, choose to vote, or receive public benefits. When you become a resident, you also have responsibilities. Unpleasant things, like filing your income taxes or registering your car. Or civic duties, like serving — for less than minimum wage! — on a jury.

So to be a resident, you take the good with the bad. That is what the bill in question attempts, albeit imperfectly, to address. Yet it doesn’t answer the underlying, fundamental question: what makes someone a resident?

The answer is provided in statute. A residency is “that place where the person has established a fixed and principal home to which the person, whenever temporarily absent, intends to return.” It isn’t the Hokey-Pokey. You can’t stick your left foot into a Maine residency to vote, only to pull it back out to keep your car registered in New Hampshire. A permanence is tied to residency; it is not something you merely choose, but rather actively establish.

People vote in Bangor during the November 2014 election. Brian Feulner | BDN

People vote in Bangor during the November 2014 election. Brian Feulner | BDN

That is why there is a reasonable question raised about college students. Some, hopefully, started in Maine or will stay after graduation and contribute to our state. But others — from New York, or Boston, or Washington — will spend their four years in Brunswick, Waterville, or elsewhere, active in student political organizations and working on local elections, only to receive their sheepskin and head out of state.

For those four years, is Maine their “fixed and principal home?” Is their intent to return wholly contingent on the tuition bill being paid? Tricky questions. No simple answers.

But the lack of a simple answer does not mean there is no answer. Some towns are taking new voters — and their declaration of residence — at their word, cross-referencing election rolls with vehicle registrations and designing enforcement strategies. The Legislature could look at enhanced penalties if individuals vote in Maine but skip the other duties incumbent on a new resident.

Or, rather than sticks, maybe the Legislature could lift its head and look at incentives to become a Maine resident…or at least lessen the burden.

The concern expressed primarily by Republicans with college students is that they have no fixed, permanent connection to Maine; voting on our out-of-control referendums or laws passed by Augusta will impact them only during their relatively brief stay in our state. Yet there is another class of people who have a lasting relationship with the Pine Tree State who actively choose not to live here. Those are the “six month minus a day” retirees.

Where, to quote one Democrat from Wednesday’s hearing, young people are “impulsive,” these citizens are deliberate. Where students might not even have a car in their name, retirees might have several. And when it comes to community engagement, those enjoying their hard-earned respite are spread throughout our state, rather than concentrated in areas where someone happened to found a school.

It is unlikely that Augusta will come to some sort of agreement on how to deal with residency, for students or otherwise. So maybe, just maybe, the Legislature could work to make Maine more hospitable to those with the means to choose their state of residence. That means real tax reform, relieving the burden of the income tax and, yes, probably adding to the sales tax.

Who knows, maybe some of those students who declared Maine their residence in November will stay and build the next great business. And in 50 years, hopefully abandoning their Maine residency never crosses their mind. Because they want to vote here, be here, and consider Maine their “fixed and principal home.”

If only it was that easy.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.