Lots of Americans assume that they have a constitutional right to vote. After all, the founding fathers of the country shaped America’s legal structure to ensure everyone’s voice could be heard. However, the “right to vote” is actually a privilege, not a constitutional right, and it is granted by the individual states to most American citizens but not all.
Although there have been broad, sweeping amendments to the US Constitution to ensure the ability to vote is not denied based on sex or race, ultimately the “right” to cast a ballot is decided individually by each state. States determine what it takes to register to vote, and they can deny groups of potential voters based on whatever criteria they see fit. As an example, most states prevent convicted felons from being able to vote.
In the past, full-time RV “residents” of South Dakota who did not have a real physical address in the state could register to vote simply by driving to South Dakota, staying at least one night in a campground, and using that campground address as their physical address to register to vote. When elections rolled around, they would submit an absentee ballot from wherever they were currently located. Voter registration was good for one year, and they had to re-register each year they wanted to cast a ballot.
A debate has been simmering in South Dakota for a long time about whether or not nomadic RVers who use the state as their legal domicile should be allowed to vote.
Way back in 2004, there was a hue and cry that perhaps full-time RVers, who tend to be white, Republican and retired, would influence the Senate race. For more info, see this article: RV Vote Could Affect Senate Race
In recent months, this debate has heated up to a raging boil, with the charge being led by Republican Senator Craig Tieszen, a former police chief. The event that brought the issue to the fore was when Pennington Country, home of Americas Mailbox, a popular full-time RVer mail forwarding company, proposed a “wheel tax” that would increase vehicle taxes by $60. The concern was that the 3,467 registered voters that are RVers with an Americas Mailbox domicile address would vote in droves against it and prevent it from passing.
In the end, only 11% of this influential RV voting bloc voted. Naturally, 98% voted against the proposed wheel tax, yet everyone else did too and the RVers had no effect on the outcome.
Nonetheless, South Dakota Senator Craig Tieszen has proposed Senate Bill 164 that would prevent anyone who doesn’t have a real physical address in South Dakota from being able to register to vote. Because of the structure of the state voting laws, this would affect both votes on local issues like vehicle taxes and votes on national issues like the presidential election coming up later this year.
The bill is currently under review and is scheduled for a hearing. If it passes, then South Dakota based nomadic RVers will not be able to vote for the next president.
I learned of this from the Advocacy arm of the Escapees RV Club, and it is for reasons like this that I highly recommend RVers join Escapees, as they have their ears to the ground and they work very hard on our behalf. A few days later a reader contacted me with a link to a news story about the issue from the Rapid City Journal (see the links at the end of this post). Interestingly, the email announcement from Escapees mentioned that they had not yet been able to reach Senator Teiszen.
Senator Tieszen has a website, and I wrote him a note on his contact form. Believe me, I was shocked when I received a reply within 24 hours. The Senator was very forthright about his opinion, stating in his email to me:
“This is an issue of right and wrong. It is simply wrong to have people that have no connection to South Dakota influencing our elections.”
I wrote him back explaining that as nine year nomadic residents of South Dakota, we have paid sales tax and registration fees on $160,000 worth of vehicles which, to me, constituted a very real connection to South Dakota. After all, I joked, we’d be happy to receive a check reimbursing us for all that money so he could accurately describe us as having no “real connection” to the state. I also referenced the fact that full-time RVers contribute to the employment of people at their mail forwarding companies and even at South Dakota insurance agencies as well.
To my utter astonishment, he responded again. This time he was much more specific, saying, in part:
“That is the issue I have with your ‘residency’. The fact that you spend money here and rent a P.O. box does not qualify you to vote and decide local issues. I understand you may want to vote in national elections and I would agree to do that if that could be separated from the rest of the ballot(I have been assured that it can’t) but what qualifies you to decide who is mayor, who is the state representative, whether we should build a city building, tax more to fix our roads, etc. People that actually live here should make those decisions. And——-when there are thousands like you, actual residents are at risk of controlling their own destiny”
I am very impressed that he took the time to write. I know how much time it takes to correspond with people. I receive and respond to emails and comments every day myself, and it is extremely time consuming. So, for a busy Senator to write a few quick sentences to me really blew me away.
Also, I was very surprised that, unlike a lot of my friends who email me from work and have a footer at the bottom of the message from their employer full of legal verbiage concerning the content of the email message, his had none of that. He simply signed his messages “Senator Craig Tieszen.” I am sure he did not expect his email to be quoted online, but I think it is important for people to see a glimpse of the man behind the bill, as he expressed himself to me.
I did not agree with his statements, though, so I wrote to him one more time, pointing out three things I think are very important.
1) Before passing this bill, there must be a true legal precedent of nomadic RVers actually casting their votes in large numbers in local elections. The wheel tax referendum in Penington County should have been one of the hottest of hot button issues for nomadic RVers, since our vehicles are our biggest tie to the state and are often our biggest asset too.
Yet if the voter turnout of RVers was just 11% on this issue, which was below the 15% voter turnout county wide, then full-time RVers don’t seem to pose a threat in local elections for selecting city mayors, state representatives and city building plans. I certainly have never voted in a local election.
2) When it comes to local issues like vehicle taxation, everyone who pays South Dakota vehicle sales taxes and vehicle registration fees should be allowed to vote so they can “control their own destiny” (borrowing Senator Tieszen’s words) regarding those taxes.
3) Some of the nomadic RVers who use South Dakota as their domicile actually have very close ties to the state and are even former “physical” residents. Some RVers return to South Dakota in the summers to work at the State and National Parks, or to work for other employers, like private RV parks, or simply to enjoy retirement life in South Dakota for a few months.
Other RVers own property in South Dakota that can’t be used as a legal domicile (i.e., open land or commercial property), so they use a mail forwarding service because it simplifies the legal logistics of their lives enormously, both for receiving mail as they move around the country and for keeping vehicles properly registered and licensed. Of course, these nomadic residents pay property taxes to the state in addition to vehicle sales tax, licensing and registration fees.
There is a provision in the bill for voter registration applicants to appeal a denial, but it is a complex, tiered process, and the criteria that must be met rule out all nomadic RVers who do not own a permanent residence in South Dakota with sleeping quarters.
The bottom line is that by denying all nomadic RVers the right to vote in local elections, this bill would effectively prohibit both seasonal residents of South Dakota and property tax payers from voting in presidential elections if they happen to rely on a mail forwarding address for domicile purposes.
Ironically, once RVers hit the road full-time, they often have no “real” ties to any state, so they are no more residents of one state than they are of another. If full-time travelers can’t vote in the state that is their legal domicile, the state where they pay their vehicle sales taxes and licensing and registration fees, and where they may pay commercial property taxes too, then where else could they possibly register?
In the end, if you think about it, full-time travelers are being lumped in the same voter category as convicted felons.
Unfortunately, Senator Tieszen has not responded to those points.
I’m not an activist, but I would very much like to be able to vote for our new president next fall. For other RVers who are concerned about protecting their ability to vote in the future, especially our “neighbors” from South Dakota.
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For more information about all this, have a look at these links:
- Voting Rights for Americans Explained – FairVote.org
- Lawmaker Wants to Purge Nomadic RVers From Voting Rolls – An excellent summary from the Rapid City Journal
- Senator Tieszen Files Anti-RV Voter Bill – Dakota Free Press
- Should RV Owners Be Disqualified From Participating In Democracy – Dakota War College
- South Dakota Senate Bill 164 – The bill proposed by Senator Tieszen
- Contact Senator Craig Tieszen – Let your voice be heard
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