Officials clarify who can register to vote amid fight over Tahoe measure to tax empty homes

Your home is your residence — but is your domicile?

Ahead of a contentious ballot measure over whether to tax mostly empty South Lake Tahoe vacation homes, the El Dorado County elections office issued an “open letter to all voters” in the city this month clarifying where someone can legally register to vote for the November election.

In the June 6 letter, written by El Dorado elections director Bill O’Neill, officials said they sought to “clarify the law” about where a person may register if they own a home in South Lake Tahoe’s city limits. The letter — complete with legal citations and the state’s election code — was meant to rebuke what officials called “misleading information” recently circulated around town.

“We became aware of misleading information being circulated to residents of South Lake Tahoe about where and under what circumstances a citizen can register to vote,” O’Neill said in a statement about the letter, which was shared by county officials on Friday afternoon.

O’Neill said officials want to do “all we can” to get residents to vote, but where they register to vote depends on where they live.

At issue: Whether a home in South Lake Tahoe is a voter’s “domicile” or just a “residence.”

What’s the difference? Language and the law, O’Neill wrote.

“Voter registration is only permissible in the location of a person’s ‘domicile,’ and not in connection with any other residence a person may own or have,” the letter says. “More specifically, while it is possible to have multiple residences, to include for example ‘vacation’ or ‘second’ homes, a person may have only one domicile at a given time.”

The misinformation that had circulated, according to county officials, suggested that someone’s South Lake Tahoe residence — be it their weekend home or vacation property — gave them the ability to register to vote. The implication was that anyone who owned a property in the city could switch registration from where they usually live to South Lake Tahoe, giving them the ability to vote on the ballot measure. If approved, the initiative would tax homeowners $6,000 a year for any property left vacant for more than half the year.

The letter “contains information based on case law,” the county said. They cited People v. Superior Court, a 2011 Los Angeles case involving whether former state Sen. Roderick Wright — later convicted of perjury and voter fraud — could be charged with violating election law. Wright was found guilty in 2014, for voting in a place he did not live, an Inglewood apartment complex he owned, and lying about it as he represented the south L.A. district.

“A ‘domicile’ is defined as a fixed place of habitation in which the person has the ‘intention of remaining,’ or, if absent, an ‘intention of returning’,” county officials said, citing the Wright case, which cites election code. The citation goes on: “On the other hand ‘the residence of a person is that place in which the person’s habitation is fixed for some period of time, but wherein he or she does not have the intention of remaining’ ... thus, ‘at a given time, a person may have more than one residence.”

O’Neill in his letter tried to simplify the distinction, citing an explanation from the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office offered during a similar issue in 2011 for residents of Fallen Leaf Lake: “A vacation (or ‘second’) home is a residence, not typically a domicile.”

“Courts have traditionally considered factors which may indicate a domicile that might include where one works, enrolls children at school, receives mail, sees their primary physician, where their vehicles are registered, the address on a driver’s license, where you receive your homeowner’s exemption, or handles other matters of similar import,” the D.A. Office said at the time.

In other words, county officials said, any person could have multiple residences, only one residence could be considered a person’s domicile, the home where they live most of the time.

“It is illegal, therefore, for a resident to register to vote using an address that is a residence rather than their domicile, which is at the crux of the misinformation we have become aware of,” O’Neill said in Friday’s statement.

While never stated in the letter or news release, El Dorado County officials are trying to tamp down anger surrounding the “South Lake Tahoe Vacancy Tax,” a measure that qualified for the ballot last month and has since divided the city.

The measure — which garnered 2,500 signatures to land on the Nov. 5 ballot — has split the city over whether to impose an eventual $6,000 annual tax on housing units that are empty for more than six months out of the year.

Proponents made up of residents, many of them renters, say the initiative would give property owners a reason to rent out empty homes, addressing the area’s affordable housing crisis. As the Los Angeles Times noted, roughly 40% of housing units in the city are used as vacation homes or rentals, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and city figures.

Homeowners, as well as business and real estate interests, say a tax won’t alleviate the housing shortage or force the city to build more units, and would be a form of taxation without representation for owners of second homes.

The campaigns for and against the measure have become so contentious, according to Politico, that a rally for supporters at the American Legion hall late last month was canceled after the hosts were swarmed with angry calls.

The county and its letter to voters sidestepped the controversy, encouraging residents to register while aiming to “clear up any confusion concerning eligibility to vote in elections in the city of South Lake Tahoe.”