Full-Time Tenn. RVers Fight for Right to Vote
When your home is the open road, where do you register to vote?
The Associated Press reported that 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 a ballot.
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 (ACLU)in Tennessee, which went to federal court Tuesday (Nov. 6) 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."
The plaintiffs were described as retirees from military and government service who currently live in their RVs while traveling throughout the country. They consider Tennessee their home, return periodically, and intend to return full-time when they stop traveling. They use a commercial mail forwarding service as their Tennessee address.
Over the past 18 months, the plaintiffs tried unsuccessfully to restore their voting rights, according to the ACLU. After repeated attempts to resolve the situation failed, they requested that ACLU-TN intervene. The ACLU-TN-sponsored lawsuit alleges the plaintiffs have been and continue to be denied their fundamental right to vote in violation of the United States and Tennessee constitutions.
But some election 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. Some officials also claim that a large bloc of registered RV voters can swing an election.
Many RV full-timers 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 RV full-timers 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.
Mail Call U.S.A. owner Alan Pinney said he has lost many customers. "They call up and say, ‘We are not going to renew our service. We are going to South Dakota or somewhere else,' " Pinney said.
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.
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 from state to state, in some cases from county to county. The actual decision is often left up to a county election official.
Sue Bray, a spokeswoman for the Ventura, Calif.-based Good Sam Club, 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."