Liveaboard Voting Rights Threatened in Florida

Election Supervisor Targets St. Brendan’s Isle Mail Service, Which Fears for Its Future
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Bucking decades of precedent, a Florida elections officer is refusing to allow customers of a popular mail forwarding service to register to vote in his county. Since 1988, St. Brendan’s Isle of Green Cove Springs in Clay County has provided transient Americans with mail forwarding services, a legal address for Florida drivers licenses and car registrations and—until now—a place to vote.

Wherever you go in Florida, the Bahamas or the Caribbean, you will find places where cruisers like to spend time together. Often there's a cork board where they can hang "boat cards." Miss Emily’s Blue Bee Bar on Green Turtle Cay in the Abacos is a fine example. The home of the original Goombay Smash cocktail has interior walls papered over in cards. Non-cruisers are sometimes amazed at how many visitors list "411 Walnut Street, Green Cove Springs" as their street address: "Wow, look at all the people from one town in Florida!"

According to St Brendan’s owners, about 3,000 of their more than 7,500 clients are registered to vote in Clay County. Most St. Brendan’s customers are liveaboard couples, but the company also serves the RV community, merchant mariners and transient professionals such as doctors and nurses.

Interviewed by Kyle Brewer of the Clay Today newspaper, which broke the story this week, Supervisor of Elections Chris Chambless said those 3,000 voters will be screened to determine whether they will be eligible to cast ballots in future elections

“We’re going to take the time to investigate–manually–each and every record, and then based upon the information that they present (on a questionnaire), we’re going to make a determination on eligibility,” Chambless told Clay Today. “If you’re not eligible to be on the rolls then we’re going to take necessary steps to remove you from the rolls.”

Speaking to us, Chambless said he doesn’t believe that the screening will happen in time to prevent St. Brendan’s voters from casting ballots in the mid-term elections in November. “The removal process can take several months based on the statutes provisions… Based on the foregoing I don't envision many people being removed before August or November,” he said.

St. Brendan’s has been helping customers to register to vote for decades, citing advisory opinions from the Florida Division of Elections that seemed to justify the practice, including this one from 2016, which said:

“To establish legal residence, a person must have a ‘good faith intention’ to reside in a particular place, coupled with ‘positive overt acts’ that demonstrate that intention…. Such ‘overt acts’ could include the person buying a home in the county, applying for homestead in the county, registering his or her vehicle in the county, receiving mail at an address in the county, or undertaking any other activity normally associated with home life."

Here's where it gets interesting. The opinion above was issued in connection with an election dispute in an adjacent county that did not involve a mail service. Chambless said the Putnam County dispute prompted him to investigate the issue locally, however, and he requested that the election division study the issue of residency and voting again, this time specifically examining the role of St. Brendan’s Isle.

In June, the division issued an opinion, which destroyed the assumptions upon which St. Brendan’s customers have been voting for decades.

“Customers of a private mail forwarding service who attempt to establish legal residency in a county by filing a Declaration of Domicile that fails to list a residential address or that lists a nonresidential address at which they do not reside and who have no other meaningful contact with the county other than using the services of this enterprise in the county to receive mail, secure a Florida driver license or Florida identification card, and obtain a license plate, or hull number for a boat, without having a past or present physical presence and intent to establish permanent residency in the county is not sufficient to establish residency for voter registration purposes and are most likely not legal residents of the county,” wrote Maria Mathews, elections division director.

St. Brendan’s owners Doug Moody and Scott Loehr see Chambless’ decision as an existential threat and said so in letter to Clay County Commissioner Mike Cella, writing: “We have learned that the other counties, where our larger competitors exist, will not be following this new Advisory Opinion as they believe the opinion contradicts previous opinions issued by the Division of Elections. This creates a serious competitive disadvantage which will likely lead to the closure of St Brendan’s Isle in the not too distant future.”

Indeed, the supervisor of election’s decision will force hundreds of cruisers to choose which is more important: voting in subsequent elections or continuing their relationship with St. Brendan’s.

St. Brendan's Isle has earned a reputation for being innovative, efficient, friendly and affordable. The company pioneered a unique system that allows people to read their mail remotely. Its staff knows the best ways to move packages to their customers depending on where they are in the world. New boaters will often turn to social media to ask the crowd how they handle getting mail while underway. The reply-comments thread quickly turns into a series of testimonials singing the company’s praises.

As disenfranchisement controversies go, the Clay County scenario is unique in that it does not target minorities or convicted felons who have served their time. The liveaboard cruising community is relatively affluent, overwhelmingly white, mostly retired, and many of them are veterans of the armed forces.

If this new advisory opinion from the Division of Elections were to be applied consistently throughout Florida (and taken to a logical conclusion), thousands of additional itinerant Americans and American ex-patriates without apartments or homes in the U.S. could well be barred from voting.

This voting crackdown is happening on the eve of an era that will likely see more and more St. Brendan’s “residents” visiting their virtual hometown as part of a micro-tourism boom.

Green Cove Springs lies along the St. Johns River about 40 miles from the Intracoastal Waterway; a 49-foot bridge prevents anyone with a taller mast from exploring the rest of this 180-mile “Old Florida” waterway. For most cruisers, Green Cove is the end of the line.

In five years, however, a 65-foot span will replace the obsolete Shands Bridge, allowing tens of thousands of heretofore barred cruising sailboats to continue south all the way to Deland. A round trip on the St. Johns will afford cruisers two opportunities to stop and spend money in Green Cove, which has two marinas, a boatyard, a city pier and a quiet anchorage, in addition to a growing number of shops and restaurants.

Make comments directly to some of the key players. Contact Information:

Supervisor of Elections Chris Chambless, cchambless@clayelections.com

County Commissioner Mike Cella, mike.cella@claycountygov.com

Clay Today Editor Eric Cravey, eric@opcfla.com

July 2018

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