Throughout American history, there have been controversies about the fulfillment-and necessity of fundamental constitutional prerequisites that a candidate must meet to run for political office.
Perhaps the most famous controversy in our time was whether President Obama actually was born in the US, one of the basic requirements to hold the office of the presidency specified by Article II of the US Constitution.
After years of persistent attacks from a crazed “birther” movement which alleged he was born in Kenya, the president eventually produced in 2011 a Hawaiian “certificate of live birth” to finally show he was born on American soil and put to rest, for most, this debate.
But the true, fundamental question that arose from this controversy was not whether Obama was a natural born US citizen, but if it is fair or wise that a nation of immigrants precludes its naturalized American citizens from being president.
Another fundamental requirement that is universal in the American political system is that candidates must meet certain residency requirements when they qualify to run for office.
And recently, a controversy over a Florida’s state senator’s “residency” once again brought the question of whether a politician should be required to actually live in his or her district, or even if in the 21st century if there should be any residency requirements at all.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, charged that Senator Maria Sachs uses the address of a condominium owned by Judith Stern, a Broward political consultant, and her daughter, as her means of establishing residency in her district-and was “violating the law.”
Latvala accused Sachs of actually living on a 5 acre equestrian estate with her husband near Boca Raton and that she rented Stern’s condo solely for the purposes of running in and serving the district she now represents in the Florida Senate.
Sachs had a simple retort to the allegations. She told The Miami Herald, “I have fully met the requirements of the law regarding legal residency in District 34.”
Practically speaking, the residency of a politician has never stopped some very prominent politicians from running in districts or states where they never even lived. Residency requirements are often very minimal, compelling a candidate to be registered to vote in the district they are running in and that they declare their “domicile” there.
Remember Hillary Clinton’s quick move to New York to run for the Senate. It only took her 30 days of living in haughty Westchester County to allow her to qualify to run for office and win office there.
Interestingly enough, the US constitution does not mandate that a congressman live in the district he or she represents, but only that they live in the state they are elected from.
That allowed former Congressman Allen West to live in his arch nemeses Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s district while representing an adjacent district and to engage in cat fights with her from there.
West dismissed criticism about his residency at the time: “I don’t think it should be a concern to voters. The Constitution just says you have to live in the state you’re running in at the time of the election,” he said. “I don’t see myself as some kind of carpetbagger.”
And West was right. We are not living in the 1800s anymore. In this day and age of electronic communication and quick, instantaneous mobility, politicians can in fact truly relate to voters and represent an election district well without actually physically living there.
In this day and age, politicians really don’t have to live in a district to respond to the needs of the people they represent there. And in terms of understanding and empathizing with a district’s quirks and history, the evolution of the US into a homogenous culture and society has really eliminated such a concern.
So what true difference would it really make if Sachs moved her husband and horses to her district, other than to make her commute to Tallahassee a little bit longer?
Like the president’s pedigree, the residency of Senator Sachs should not be a constitutional issue or a political one either. If our founding fathers did not find it necessary that a Congressman live in the district he serves, then the constitutional residency requirements in the Florida constitution, and in other states, may be overly restrictive, particularly these days
Surely Sachs spends more than enough time in her district, and communicating with her constituency by PDA, computer, and telephone too, to do her job without the requirement that she truly sleep there every night too.
In the end, as West put it, voters aren’t really concerned about where their representatives live, and neither should Senator Latvala be too