Sunday, June 16, 2024

Sam Seidel awaits the verdict Wednesday in an Election Commission hearing about where he votes. (Photo: Marc Levy)

With reluctance, the Election Commission removed a former two-term city councillor from Cambridge’s voting rolls Wednesday and prepared to do the same for others in his situation: living on the Somerville city line with parts of a home’s property in each city.

The question of whether Sam Seidel would stay a Cambridge voter has been before the commission since Feb. 15. Board members’ need for more information and legal advice – and an evident reluctance to deal with the fallout – delayed a decision; Seidel and Heather Hoffman, an attorney presenting the case against Seidel voting in Cambridge, also each asked for delays for personal reasons.

Presenting the legal advice asked by the board was Elliott Veloso, first assistant city solicitor with the Law Department. He made it clear that there were no especially complicated questions of law in deciding a voter’s domicile; the defining case was in 1839.

“In instances where a boundary line divides a property, ’domicile’ is determined first on which side of the boundary a person sleeps, where they lay their head,” Veloso said. “Only if you can’t make that determination based on the boundary line, you would then move to other considerations.”

In Seidel’s case on Harris Street, though some of his property is in Cambridge, his house is not – so where he lays his head is in Somerville, which is also where his tax bills go, though he gets many services from Cambridge.

Commissioners Ethridge King and Larry Ward threw out as many questions and cautions as they could, delaying a vote into a 50-minute hearing. Fellow member Victoria Harris recusing herself from the hearing because she’s worked with Seidel left chair Charles Marquardt as the third vote – yet Ward asked Veloso what would happen if there was no majority, raising the possibility that he or King might abstain and force the hearings to continue into at least a fourth session.

“This matter is decided”

Ultimately neither abstained, and the vote was unanimous: Seidel was incorrectly registered in Cambridge and would be removed from the city’s voting rolls. The commission would help him get registered in Somerville.

“Sorry, Sam,” Marquardt said. “This whole thing bites. I wish it never happened. This is not fun.”

The law was clear, Marquardt said, and staff and other commissioners echoed the sentiment. Ward said he was “heartbroken,” considering Seidel’s engagement in Cambridge life, including a 2007-2011 stint on the City Council.

Immediately after the hearing, Seidel declined to comment beyond thanking the commissioners for their deliberation and commitment. “This matter is decided, and I think it’s time to move on,” Seidel said.

Harris returned for discussion of how Seidel’s neighbors would next be confirmed for voter registration in the correct city.

Bigger look at Harris Street

There are as many as 22 people on Harris Street who could be in a similar situation, and King and Ward said they were reluctant to overturn the lives of people who thought they bought homes in Cambridge, were allowed to vote in Cambridge elections and have been active in civic life in Cambridge, like Seidel. The reason his case came to the commission is that he signed a zoning petition to get it before the Planning Board, and resident Charles Teague suspected Seidel didn’t have the right. Hoffman represented Teague in the hearings.

A memorandum submitted by a Craig Kelley, an attorney and former colleague of Seidel’s on the council, suspected Teague’s motives were to “make people think not just twice but three, four or even five times before signing a petition, submitting a letter or showing up to comment” for fear of blowback. King and Ward took the warning to heart when thinking about removing more people from Cambridge rolls because the law considered them Somerville voters.

“Voter suppression and voter disenfranchisement, those buzzwords will get thrown around,” King said. “This will piss people off.”

“There’s going to be lawsuits,” Ward said.

There were less likely to be legal challenges if state law was followed dispassionately and equitably – including a lawsuit from Seidel, who now shouldn’t be the only Harris Street resident examined under the state standard, argued executive director Tanya Ford and Lesley Waxman, assistant director. The bigger danger, Harris said, is that there’s a close election and voters call it invalid because of city-line voters. The city of Brockton faced such a problem in the 1980s, she said.

Required to investigate

If the commissioners knew of potential problems on Harris Street, it was impossible to ignore them, King and Ward were told.

And in defending himself, Seidel noted how many people on his street were in the same situation. A Department of Public Works map backed him up. Though King and Ward fought it desperately – latching onto Veloso’s recitation of a law that upon probable cause the commission “may prepare a complaint” rather than “shall” – they were out-reasoned by Marquardt, Harris, Ford and Waxman.

“If you follow the letter of the law, nobody can be accusing you of [abusing your] discretion. If you don’t follow up now that we know, you’re opening yourself up to accusations,” Waxman said.

Staff said they would do more research into the Harris Street homes – including one structure where there’s one Cambridge voter and one Somerville voter – and set up a process to notify residents. “They probably already know that it’s coming,” Ford said, “because word spreads.”

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