Recently introduced state legislation would relax voter registration rules, allowing California legislative candidates to live far outside the district they seek to represent.
The change would let candidates live in one place in the state and register to vote and seek office elsewhere – as long as they “hold property, whether by lease or by title” in the district.
The proposed change, if it had been in effect in 2008, could have spared the political career of former state Sen. Rod Wright, who resigned in September 2014 after a Los Angeles County judge upheld his conviction for lying about where he lived. Wright is barred from running for future political office.
The author of Senate Bill 163, state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, represents Wright’s former district. His office declined to comment on the measure.
Bradford’s bill would expand the definition of domicile for voting purposes to include a place “in which the person has legal tenancy.” The bill defines legal tenancy as “a person’s right to possess or hold property, whether by lease or by title.”
Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt, an election law expert, said he understands the bill’s rationale but said he knows of no state that gives voters a choice about where they register to vote.
“I think there are some benefits to re-examining residency limitations for candidates, and seeing whether voters care where their representatives live,” Levitt said. Members of Congress, for example, do not have to live in the district they represent, just the same state.
Yet the proposed change, Levitt added, could prompt people to rent a sliver of land far from where they live to be able to vote in elections there.
Under California law, people only can register to vote at their “domicile” – a fixed address where the occupant, whenever he or she is away, has the “intention of returning.”
The requirement often comes into play following the once-a-decade redrawing of political lines, as candidates look for new opportunities. In 2013, for example, The Sacramento Bee reported that then-Assemblyman Richard Pan did not appear to live in the condo within his Assembly district where he was registered to vote, but instead spent nights at his family home outside the district.
It is arguable that there is an ambiguity in the law on residency and domicile. It is arguable because in my calculation over a quarter of the members in the minority party on this floor today have had their own residency status questioned at the time that they filed for office.
Then-Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, in March 2014
Criminal charges are rare, with Wright’s case the main exception.
Los Angeles prosecutors alleged that the veteran lawmaker was registered to vote at a home he owned in Inglewood, within the then-25th Senate District, but actually lived in Baldwin Hills, outside the district, when he ran in 2008.
Prosecutors presented testimony from a tenant of Wright’s Inglewood home that she never saw him fix a meal or stay overnight. His Baldwin Hills neighbors, meanwhile, testified that they often saw him there. Wright’s defense attorney countered that the lawmaker considered the Inglewood address as his domicile.
A jury convicted Wright in early 2014 on eight felony counts – two counts of perjury, one count of filing a false declaration of candidacy and five counts of fraudulent voting in elections in 2008 and 2009. He lost his appeal of the conviction last year.
Winston Kevin McKesson, Wright’s defense attorney in the case, said Thursday that the state’s definition of domicile is confusing.
“The argument never was that (Wright) lived there. The argument was that it was his domicile,” he said. McKesson said he was unaware of SB 163.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the measure.