A Voting Outrage
Times Union, Albany
May 19, 2001
New York's highest court has a chance to clarify just what constitutes residency under state election laws. Mundane as it sounds, the matter is critical for a Brooklyn political maverick named John Kennedy O'Hara, who's fighting a felony conviction for illegal voting.
That's right, voting. Mr. O'Hara stands, apparently, as the first person since Susan B. Anthony - convicted for trying to vote before women obtained that right - to be found guilty of such an offense. Bizarre as it sounds, the implications are scary for anyone else who might run for office or deem to vote for someone who does.
Where someone lives and where he or she votes used to be a loosely defined and loosely enforced matter in this state. It was fine, the Court of Appeals said in a civil case ruling 29 years ago, when John Holt-Harris was elected to a city judicial position in Albany from an address where he recalled sleeping only once in seven years.
In the only other criminal case involving voting residency in New York, a man named Benjamin Ramos, running for a Bronx school board seat, was arrested and charged with registering and voting from a place that did not qualify as his residence under the election laws. His indictment was overturned in a decision that was upheld by the state's second-highest court in 1994. The prevailing reasoning was that a candidate can choose a residence that isn't a primary or principal residence for the purpose of voting so long as it is not a sham address.
Which brings New York to Mr. O'Hara. Three times he's stood frial, on felony accounts, for illegal voting and false voter registration. The Brooklyn district attorney's office maintains the crime occurred in 1992 and 1993. Before then and since then, five times in all, Mr. O'Hara has been an unsuccessful candidate for both the state Assembly and the New York City Council, running against the Brooklyn Democratic organization.
Mr. O'Hara doesn't deny registering and voting from an address on 47th Street in Brooklyn - an ex-girlfriend's residence, as it happens, where he occasionally stayed and used as an address while he ran for a redistricted City Council seat, even though it wasn't legally required. Some of his personal financial records from that time listed the 47th Street address, and neighbors attested that sometimes stayed there. All the while, Mr. O'Hara says, he kept his other residence, on nearby 61st Street in Brooklyn. The district attorney's office, though, says 61st Street was the only place he lived - and that 47th Street never met the standard of a principal residence where he had always intended to return.
Suddenly the matter of maintaining two residences, not uncommon in New York politics and upheld as legal in a 1983 Court of Appeals decision, wasn't so readily accepted. Yes, Mr. O'Hara had two residences, but neither was a sham.
Since his arrest in 1996, Mr. O'Hara has been disbarred as an attorney, lost his right to vote, ordered to pay $20,000 in fines and restitution and perform 1,500 hours of community service.
His plight is one more reason why residency laws should be made simpler and enforced consistently. The appropriate dismissal by the Court of Appeals of the case that's come to haunt him would allow Mr. O'Hara to go on with his life, other New Yorkers to vote and run for office without fear of such prosecution, and Susan B. Anthony to stand properly alone in history.