John Olsrud: Does It Matter Where Legislators Live?
In the general election in 2016 the voters of North Dakota will be deciding whether to amend the state constitution to add language stating that a legislator must live in the district from which elected. This may seem like a simple idea, but there are ramifications we should consider.
Most of the attention regarding this issue has been on legislators, but I think we should concentrate on the people those legislators represent. After an election, isn’t it significant that the people elected are the ones who represent us?
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]We live in a highly mobile society, and where a legislator goes to sleep at night is not as important as whether that person can continue to represent the people who elected him or her.[/mks_pullquote]
When I was director of the North Dakota Legislative Council, a Republican legislator from Fargo came to me and asked if he had to resign his legislative seat because he and his wife were moving to their lake home in Minnesota while their North Dakota home was being renovated. State law provides that residency is a matter of act and intent. Clearly, this man’s intent was that his home was in Fargo, even though he would not be occupying that home for an extended period of time. I was glad I could advise him that he could continue as a legislator. In my opinion, the constituents in his district were the winners, as the person they had elected could continue to serve them even though he would actually be living in Minnesota.
Quite a few North Dakotans, especially in the Red River Valley, including legislators, have summer homes in Minnesota. As they near retirement, some of these people buy homes in Sun Belt states. Maintaining three homes is a bit much for most people, so if a legislator is near the end of a term and not planning to run again, guess which home that legislator is most likely to sell—the one in Minnesota where the family summers, the one in the Sun Belt where the legislator spends winters except during legislative sessions, or the one in the legislative district from which the legislator was elected where that person hardly ever sleeps? If the Governor calls a special election after the legislator sells the North Dakota home, who can best represent the people of that district—the person the voters elected or a newly appointed person?
We live in a highly mobile society, and where a legislator goes to sleep at night is not as important as whether that person can continue to represent the people who elected him or her. We know there are members of Congress who live in Washington but maintain residencies in their congressional districts. Speaking of multiple homes, we are reminded of Senator John McCain, who did not even know how many homes he had when he ran for president. Wealthy people can always maintain a home in a legislative district even if they never sleep there, but how important is it that a legislator keep a house if that person is not spending any time there?
When we consider the residency issue for legislators, we should not see this as a way to punish legislators who move to another district. We need to consider how important it is that the people elected are the ones who represent us.