Where One Votes

There is a tradition in New York State that the governor grant Christmas clemencies for state prison inmates. But outgoing Governor George Pataki declined to do so for the third time in his 12 years as the chief executive. Usually, the recipients of his largesse have been low-level drug offenders who were serving draconian sentences under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, although, in 2003, he pardoned comedian Lenny Bruce, who was convicted of an obscenity charge in 1964. Yes, the Lenny Bruce who died in 1966.

The person I was rooting for was a guy named John O’Hara. He was convicted in 1997 of felony voter fraud for voting using his girlfriend’s address, which he claimed (unsuccessfully) was his primary address. He was running against the Democratic machine candidates, most recently against Assemblyman James Brennan in a 1996 primary.

Those of you from New York State are likely aware of the selective persecution, I mean prosecution, that was going on. O’Hara lost his law license, was fined $20,000, and served 1500 hours of community service.

Recently, I was reading an article about how fuzzy the concept of “primary residence” is, with what was the “summer home” or “winter home” now as equipped as the traditional primary residence.

I relate to this situation because I’ve been there. I went to college in New Paltz, NY in 1971, but continued to vote from my hometown of Binghamton, NY. However, when my family moved to Charlotte, NC in 1974, I decided that I’d register in New Paltz. There were two county registrars, a Democrat and a Republican. The latter, fearing a horde of students taking over the town, wanted me to register where my parents lived. (The state law at that time had a clause that one could “neither gain nor lose residency by being a student”, but I didn’t HAVE another residence. I argued that I hadn’t, at that point, even BEEN to Charlotte, and that I would be ill-equipped to be conversant with the issues. The Rep ultimately relented.

So, did John O’Hara move his residence 14 blocks fraudulently? I don’t know, but the arcane registration laws in this state, which technically require one to re-register if one moves from one apartment to another in the same building, makes me sympathetic to his cause. I know folks who’ve moved and voted from their old address because they had not had a chance to re-register. (Note: I did not turn them in.)

In fact, let me admit my own culpability. I moved from Jackson Heights, Queens, NY to sleeping on my friend’s sofa in New Paltz, NY in September 1977. I remember this clearly because NYC was having a Democratic mayoral primary between Ed Koch (who won) and Mario Cuomo on the second Tuesday of that month. Where was my residence? Well, technically, I didn’t have one, but I was registered in Queens. My options were to be disenfranchised – I didn’t have anything that would show I lived in New Paltz – or vote in Queens; I voted in Queens. (Incidentally, Koch and Cuomo had a rematch in the 1982 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Who won? Ever heard of Governor Koch? I didn’t think so.)

In any case, the punishment in the O’Hara case far outweighed the crime. Maybe he’ll have better luck with Governor Spitzer NEXT Christmas. Ho ho ho.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

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