The first autumn we had our upstate weekend/summer place, I was struck by the number of political signs. It seemed like every intersection had sprouted a garden of temporary signs, all in various shades of red, white and blue, promoting candidates high and low.
We never saw that many signs in our much more heavily populated neighborhood in the city. It certainly wasn’t because there aren’t any places to put signs in the city. There are signs everywhere promoting all manner of services and products — but even at the height of election season, there were few signs promoting political candidates.
I decided we didn’t see signs at home at least partly because we lived in a neighborhood, city and county dominated by one political party. No matter what the issues, no matter who the candidates, the same party reliably won pretty much every race. It’s the same in many other communities across America where one party dominates, year after year.
But not in the town and county where we have a little lake house upstate. It’s a deeply purple area, nearly evenly divided between registered Republicans and registered Democrats. All those people who planted signs at intersections — and in their yards — thought their candidates had a real chance to win. In my city neighborhood, nobody wasted their time — or the printing costs — on signs for elections they thought were predetermined.
This got me thinking. How much did my votes in the city matter? I’m a registered independent, and over the years have voted regularly for candidates from both main parties and a slew of minor parties, too. But did those votes really count? Election after election, race after race, the candidate from the dominant party won.
In the city, weeks before an election, I knew which candidates were almost certainly going to win.
Upstate, in contrast, the elections were routinely close. A landslide was relatively rare. Many races, especially in the local elections, were sometimes decided by hundreds or dozens or even fewer votes. One recent election in our upstate town was decided by a single vote.
Would my vote count more if I voted upstate? Yes, I decided. Especially in our district’s congressional race, which had flip-flopped several times between Republican and Democrat over just a few years. I also liked the idea of having a say in choosing the local officials who were going to decide how often we have to pump out our septic tank or whether we can list our place on Airbnb.
I already knew several of those local officials just from seeing them around town, often at holiday celebrations, official meetings or the farmers market. I met them. We shook hands. I told them what I thought about proposed rules for keeping our lake clean, or hours for posting lifeguards on the beaches. They usually at least acted like they were listening and cared.
In contrast, I had never met any of my elected officials in the city.
But could we register to vote at our second home? Was it even legal?
Yes, it was legal, local elections officials upstate told me. As long as I did own the property upstate and stopped voting in the city, it was fine. They didn’t need to know how much time I spent upstate. I simply needed to register. (Note: that was for me, in my town, with my election officials. Everyone shifting registration should check with their local officials to make sure it’s okay in their jurisdiction.)
My wife and I switched our registration a few years ago, and quickly learned that quite a few of our lake neighbors had done the same thing. Several of them had been voting upstate for decades. “Your vote counts for more,” a number of neighbors told me.
As we spent more time in the country thanks to the pandemic, it made even more sense for the lake to become our official, permanent residence. We were spending more time there than in the city, thanks to remote work, and the city had become more of a part-time address. A couple of times we filed absentee ballots to vote upstate because we were in the city on Election Day.
We were soon shifting our address for other purposes, too. Because we registered upstate, we were in the upstate juror pool. I haven’t been called yet, but one of my neighbors was called and ended up serving on a grand jury. For several months, he’d go into the country courthouse on Fridays — not every Friday — for a couple hours of grand jury service. He loved it because he had the perfect excuse to drive upstate on Thursdays and start his weekends early.
Our auto insurance company lowered our premiums when we changed the policy to specify that our car was spending more time in an upstate private garage than on city streets. Our accountant said spending more time upstate would lower our city income taxes. Some neighbors said their health insurance premiums went down when they shifted to the country address.
The larger benefit, though, is still a deeper feeling of civic involvement. Unlike some communities with sharp red-blue or left-right divides, we can talk local politics with many of our upstate neighbors. Not all of them, of course. Too many people these days seem to have decided that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is the enemy, or at best an idiot undeserving of a polite discussion.
National races seem especially flammable: some people are much more amenable to thoughtful, respectful discussions about who would be a better dogcatcher than who would be a better president.
Of course, voting from your weekend or country or escape home isn’t for everyone. Many of us are quite happy with being involved in our city or first-home community voting — especially if we want to get involved in campaigns or perhaps run for office ourselves someday.
(Though I know at least two people who shifted their voter registration from the city to their upstate weekend homes, and subsequently ran for local office. Both had to spend a fair amount of their political effort assuring their upstate neighbors that they really weren’t big-city carpetbaggers. Both lost. Badly.)
I’d urge anybody who’s considering voting in their weekend home’s electoral district to check first with local election officials to make sure it’s legal to register and vote there. Local rules from state to state, county to county, can be tricky.
Voter fraud is extremely rare in America — always has been, and still is — but in some jurisdictions both officials and vigilantes are on hyper-alert, and none of us needs a deputy showing up at the door with a warrant.
The same with driver’s licenses, auto registration, insurance forms, taxes and anything else you’re shifting to your country place: be upfront, get permission and be transparent. Don’t try to hide anything.
If you get all the legal go-aheads, changing your voter registration address might work for you. Maybe you’ll get to be on a first-name basis with the town dogcatcher.