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Our Opinion: Rewrite state law to clarify standards on candidate residency

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Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield isn’t the first state lawmaker to face scrutiny over where she lives — nor is she likely to be the last.

Residency challenges aren’t unheard of in local elections, as Mayor Bruce Rose prevailed in a November 2015 hearing after his opponent failed to present evidence. In General Assembly contests, they’ve become a handy wrench in the tactician’s toolbox. Democrats challenge Republicans; Republicans challenge Democrats, and the resolution process is riddled with partisan politics.

In July, the state elections board ruled along party lines that Democrat Jen Mangrum was a resident of Senate District 30 and could run against powerful Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican. The panel overturned a local elections board determination, also made along party lines, that would have disqualified Mangrum.

In May, the state board rebuffed a residency challenge against Democratic Sen. Ben Clark in Hoke County that had been filed by a supporter of Clark’s Republican rival, Naveed Aziz. The county elections board had also ruled in Clark’s favor.

The left-wing nonprofit Real Facts NC sent mailings to Republican legislative candidates and filed several challenges against those whose mail was marked undeliverable and returned, Colin Campbell of The Insider State Government News Service reported in April. Rep. Justin Burr of Stanly County was caught up in this dragnet and said he has all his mail delivered to a post office box.

Residency challenges have become increasingly common because the state laws that determine eligibility are convoluted and the rulings are often nakedly political. North Carolina can change that, and to ensure residents of all 100 counties have authentic representation, lawmakers must simplify the complex calculus.

In order to run for office, a person must be registered to vote in the district he or she seeks to represent. The standard for candidate residency is the same for voter residency, but it’s rarer for a person who is not running for office to be challenged as an ineligible voter.

In 1994, the N.C. Court of Appeals established a three-prong test to determine whether a “domicile for voting purposes” has changed: “an actual abandonment of the first domicile, coupled with an intention not to return to it; the acquisition of a new domicile by actual residence; and the intent of making the newer residence a permanent home.”

“It’s not a simple formula, such as where you sleep or where you get your mail,” writes UNC School of Government professor Bob Joyce. “Instead, it’s a little more fluid, boiling down to a few rules, simple to state but sometimes hard to apply.”

The legal standards are too squishy for our comfort. Intent is part of the equation, though behavior is given greater weight. Instead of leaving it up to partisan elections boards to decide where someone lives, there should be a bright-line test. The determination ought to be objective rather than subjective.

We don’t know what the rules should be, as people can have legitimate ties to two or more communities. Many legislators have second homes, condominiums and apartments in and around Raleigh, and there are plenty of folks who’d make fine public servants with similarly bifurcated living arrangements.

The number of nights spent in each home may not be the definitive answer, but it could be a place to start. We envision a handful of meaningful metrics where a candidate can qualify as a bona fide resident if he or she can meet multiple litmus tests.

The N.C. Republican Party has accused Farmer-Butterfield of establishing a domicile in Johnston County after she bought a $375,000 home in the Chadbourne subdivision near Garner in September 2015. Farmer-Butterfield says her daughter lives at that home full-time, and she stays there during the week when the legislature’s in session, but her permanent home is on Bridgersville Road outside Macclesfield in eastern Wilson County.

Farmer-Butterfield, a Democrat, is running for a ninth term in House District 24 and faces unaffiliated rival Ken Fontenot, who is supported by the county and state GOP.

As of this writing, no formal challenges have been filed against Farmer-Butterfield, but it may only be a matter of time. During an Oct. 17 visit to Wilson, state GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said the party was “frantically filing a number of legal challenges” because Republican officials believe fundamental principles of representative democracy are at stake.

“If she can get away with this, the residency requirement in our (state) constitution has forever been shredded,” Woodhouse said.

It seems to us the residency requirement as interpreted by statute and case law is already plenty porous. Standards are imprecise and determinations are made on political grounds.

We should have confidence that the representatives we send to Raleigh really do live among us. It will take a thorough rewrite of election eligibility law to provide such an ironclad assurance.

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