Some residents of Washington, D.C., have lived there for years but still cast their votes from elsewhere in the United States.
D.C. is home to over 700,000 people, a population greater than Wyoming and Vermont — but unlike citizens in those states, D.C. residents don’t have anyone voting for their interests in Congress.
That situation is unlikely to change anytime soon, even with a historic vote in the House on Friday to grant D.C. statehood, because of opposition to the legislation by the Senate and the White House.
All this means some District residents go through complicated lengths in an effort to have their vote count at the federal level.
Katherine Abughazaleh is one of those voters. She says her decision to stay registered in Texas came down to wanting to feel like her vote matters.
“Especially in Dallas, you have a lot more voting power. In 2018, our representative changed from red to blue and I wanted to be a part of that,” Abughazaleh says. “If I were a D.C. voter, I wouldn’t have someone to call and say ‘vote this way.’ Right now, I can call my congressman and say, ‘I want you to support this’ or ‘I don’t want you to support that.’ ”
Kate, a Republican who works in D.C. as a political consultant, also votes in her home state of Tennessee. She asked NPR only to use her first name, out of concerns she might be skirting voting laws.
For Kate, the choice centers more on her interest in the local politics of her hometown than on big national factors.
“[The District] is blue enough that no matter how I vote, it’s not going to change it. Where I’m from in Tennessee, it’s red enough that no matter how I vote, it’s not going to change it,” Kate chuckles. “Voting for small, local town stuff — I feel like my opinion is more valid in those politics than in these.”
These types of reasoning frustrate Robert C. White Jr., who serves as one of D.C.’s at-large council members.
“I’m always disappointed when folks live in D.C. but don’t vote here, because if you call D.C. home, then you have to join our struggle,” he says. “If folks want voting representation, then the work they have to do is not maintain voting elsewhere but to work with us to get the representation that we deserve.”
Rebecca — who also asked NPR only to use her first name out of potential legal concerns — came to D.C. for college seven years ago and says she feels guilty about continuing to vote in Georgia.
“I feel a little like I’m rigging the system,” she says. “But when I remember that Congress is rigging the system by not allowing D.C. congressional representation and voting power and statehood, it kind of justifies what I’m doing.”
Beneath what she called indignation about D.C.’s status is confusion, too — as to whether or not she’s breaking the law.
“I do feel like my home is my family home in Georgia. I pay rent in D.C., but I’m just here temporarily,” Rebecca says. “If someone were to question me legally, I don’t know what the actual legal definition of living somewhere is.”
Intention is everything
The answer to that lies in the gray areas of state residency laws.
“Most states have a law that says something about either you reside there or you intend to return,” says David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.
Becker also led the development of the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, which helps states correct out-of-date voter records, as well as register new eligible voters.
“If a person lives in the District of Columbia and can claim residency legally in another state … and only votes there, there is nothing illegal or improper about that,” he says.
That the voter only votes in their former state is key, as many states do have laws that explicitly ban double voting.
‘Intent to return’ covers various groups of people who live in one place but consider their permanent home to be elsewhere, including military families who relocate often, college students and snow birds.
Becker cautioned against inflating the effects of the small percentage of people in D.C. who engage in this practice.
“The number of people who are voting somewhere other than their legal residency is infinitesimally small,” he says. “The number of people who may be voting somewhere other than where they’re currently putting their head at night might be somewhat larger than that.”
Many state laws take a broad perspective about what it means for someone to intend to return someday.
“The states have decided how they’re going to define residency and most have defined residency as an attempt to return. … They can always change that,” Becker said. “But most states haven’t. And probably because this is something that members of both parties are doing.”
The gray area also makes potential legal challenges difficult, because a state would have to prove that a voter never intended to one day return.
Actual voter fraud in U.S. elections is very rare.
Becker says the issues with U.S. elections don’t have anything to do with a small group of D.C. voters who want to have a say in who is elected to Congress — it’s that much of the rest of the country chooses not to be engaged at all.
“The biggest problem in the United States is not that we have people too willing to register and go out of their way to register in a particular way and go out of their way to vote in more and more elections; that is not the problem,” Becker says. “If that were the problem, we’d have a far different country. We wouldn’t have 60% maximum turnout in a presidential election.”