When New York City suddenly shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic in March, Marilyn moved to Pike County, Pennsylvania, a rural region hugging the scenic Delaware Water Gap and the Pocono Mountains. Marilyn and her husband have owned a second home in the county for more than 20 years, and she decided, like many New Yorkers, to live there at least while the pandemic was still a threat. In September, she went to the county election office to register as a Pennsylvania voter. According to Marilyn, an official told her she needed a Pennsylvania driver’s license. Marilyn said she didn’t have one, but would gladly provide other information to prove her residency.
“No,” the official said. “You need a Pennsylvania driver’s license.” Marilyn pointed out that this requirement does not appear on the voter registration form. “I live here,” she said. “I own a house here. I get to vote here.” Nadeen Manzoni, director of the Pike County Elections Office, then came to the desk and, according to Marilyn, said that “a lot of people are trying to do this because of COVID.” Manzoni then asked how long Marilyn planned to remain in Pennsylvania, questioning her legal residency in the state. Marilyn told Slate that Manzoni ultimately refused to accept the registration form.
The seemingly bureaucratic dispute has undeniable political undertones. Pike County voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016 and looks poised to do so again this year. But it has seen a surge in new arrivals since March—primarily New Yorkers like Marilyn seeking more space to avoid COVID-19. Many of these individuals have long owned a second home in the county where they decided to live full time beginning this spring.
Marilyn isn’t the only Pike County resident whom the elections office reportedly refused to register. (Slate granted her request to withhold her last name because she fears retribution when she tries, once again, to register.) Manzoni appears to have adopted a policy limiting former New York City residents’ ability to vote in Pennsylvania after they relocated to the state. That policy aligned with a broader resentment in the community that so many New Yorkers have migrated to Pike County this year.
On Sept. 24, Manzoni sent an email to county residents, stating: “Many people who own second homes in Pike County have been spending more time here as a result of COVID-19. Anyone considering registering to vote in PA should be aware of Pennsylvania Residency requirements when considering how to vote this year.” She attached a flyer that she also posted in the elections office.
This flyer warned voters that while “many people who own second homes in Pennsylvania are spending more time here due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” they are not necessarily eligible to vote. The flyer then asserted that voters “must register in the state of their Primary Residence.” It listed “indicators” of “an established Primary Residence.” Qualified voters, the flyer explained, must have a Pennsylvania driver’s license, bank statements, and payroll stubs with a Pennsylvania address, and “medical and other insurance policies” with a Pennsylvania address. They must file federal taxes from a Pennsylvania address and “spend more than 183 days per year in Pennsylvania.” Any individual who does not meet these qualifications but still registers, the flyer explained, may be imprisoned for seven years, fined $15,000, and stripped of their voting rights.
Krista Gromalski, communications director of the Pike County Commissioners Office, denied on Tuesday that Manzoni refused to register any voters.
Virtually all of the flyer’s alleged voter qualifications are false, as a group of local attorneys informed the elections board on Monday in an alarmed letter. Pennsylvania voters are not required to have a Pennsylvania driver’s license to register. They are not required to have bank statements, payroll stubs, or insurance policies with a Pennsylvania address. They do not have to file federal taxes from a Pennsylvania address and spend more than 183 days per year in the state.
So where did all the flyers’ rules come from? They were cobbled together from various statutes, including the Motor Vehicle Code and tax laws, that have nothing to do with voting. In reality, an individual may vote in Pennsylvania so long as they consider it the state where their “habitation is fixed” and to which they have “the intention of returning” whenever they leave. And it is illegal for election officials to summarily reject someone’s voter registration form on the suspicion that they do not qualify. The local attorneys highlighted these laws in their letter to the board.
Thomas Farley, the solicitor of the Pike County Board of Elections, responded to the local attorneys’ letter on Tuesday with indignation. “I am insulted,” Farley wrote, that anyone would suggest that the office intended to “reduce voter registration.” He continued:
I agree that voting access is a bipartisan issue. However, we have had many individuals visit the Election Office and indicate they wish to register in Pennsylvania because it is a ‘battle ground’ State. However, they also in the same breath tell the office staff that they are residents of New York and/or New Jersey or another border State. They inform the office staff they do not wish to reside in Pennsylvania permanently, but they have a second (2nd) home in Pike County. The flyer was prepared to educate our Pike County voters.
On Tuesday, I asked the Pennsylvania secretary of state’s office about the Pike County Elections Office’s misinformation. A spokeswoman told me that “the Department of State, in response to a request from Pike County officials some weeks ago, provided a list of the only three qualifications there are to register.” A qualified voter must have been a U.S. citizen for at least one month before the election, been a resident of their election district for 30 days before the election, and be 18 years old.
“The Pennsylvania Constitution and the Pennsylvania Election Code include no other qualifications to be registered,” the spokeswoman said, “and they do not require a resident to obtain documentation proving residency prior to registering to vote.”
We’ll likely never know how many Pike County residents were illegally denied the opportunity to register or were dissuaded from voting in Pennsylvania because they previously lived in New York City. Those who were turned away have until Oct. 19 to register. The elections office, which had posted the flyer, removed it on Tuesday. But the United States’ extremely decentralized election system puts a huge amount of power in the hands of civil servants like Manzoni.
In 2016, Trump won Pennsylvania by 44,000 votes. The Pike County dispute might seem minor, a small-town kerfuffle with no impact on the broader race. But in a close election, each instance of voter suppression can make a difference. “My real concern is that this has been going on for months,” Marilyn told Slate. “I know this happens to people all over the county, and now I realize how genuinely horrible it is. It was intimidating. It felt like I had no power to do what I know is my right as an American citizen. I felt like I had no power.”