The Mixed Alarcon Verdict: Time To Abolish Candidate Residency Requirements

The LA Times Soumya Karlamaga reports that former LA City council member Richard Alarcon was found guilty on some, but not most, counts of voter fraud and perjury (his wife was found guilty on some charges as well). There will be a motion for a new trial and appeals from the Alarcons. At issue was whether Alarcon and his wife intended to return to his in-district home while he worked outside his district. This trial, like the Ron Wright trial, turns on the meaning of “domicile” and candidate residency laws which require getting into the head of a politician (never a comfortable place to be) and discerning his intent.

In my view, it is time to abolish candidate residency laws. (This is not an excuse for Wright or Alarcon—if they violated the rules as they were at the time they were running, then they should be punished. It is an argument about going forward).

Here is what I wrote in Slate a few years ago, when an Illinois court said that Rahm Emanuel could not run for mayor of Chicago because he was not a resident (while he was serving as White House Chief of Staff in Washington DC:

Monday’s decision is wrong on many levels. Whether Emanuel’s move to D.C. for a year should affect his mayoral chances is a question for the voters, not the courts, to decide. Emanuel’s residency is no secret—it has been a defining campaign issue. If Chicago voters don’t want to vote for Emanuel because they think he’s a carpetbagger (even though this strains credulity given his longstanding Chicago ties), they can reject him at the ballot box. Now, in a nonpartisan election, they’ll have to choose among a long list of candidates, none of whom has polled as strongly as Emanuel. Finally, should a politician really face a penalty like this for serving the president? Is it really true that no good deed goes unpunished?

The appellate court’s overly technical reading of Illinois law risks denying Chicago voters their first-choice candidate for mayor. For no good reason, the court has thrust itself into the political thicket. If there’s time, the Illinois Supreme Court should get the judiciary out of the fray and leave the question of who should be Chicago’s mayor to the voters.

The Illinois Supreme Court went on to reverse the lower court and allow Emanuel on the ballot and the voters elected him.

The idea that we need to protect voters from carpetbagging outsiders is outdated and patronizing. If voters don’t want the outsider to be the representative, they can vote that way. But does anyone think the quality of Alarcon’s representation of his district depended at all on whether his primary residence was a few miles outside his district? And even if they did, the remedy would be to vote him out of office.

There’s no good reason to let prosecutors go after politicians on cases which require rummaging through the clothes and baby pictures in a politician’s house. This leaves open room for selective prosecutions and mistakes. Let’s repeal these candidate residency laws.

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