Proposed election residency rule aims to keep ‘carpetbaggers’ out of politics

Published 8:35 am Monday, March 25, 2019

How long should someone live in Mississippi or a particular district, county, or city before they are eligible to run for office? Lawmakers say years, and they’re applying the requirements to more elective offices.

Senate Bill 2030 , which awaits Gov. Phil Bryant’s signature or veto, would for the first time require that someone live in a county, city, county supervisor’s district, or city alderman’s ward for at least two years before they could be elected to office to represent that area. Cities with a population under 1,000 would be excluded.

Those are similar to requirements to run for legislative offices under the state constitution, which requires someone to live in Mississippi for four years and to live in the district for two years. That’s the strictest requirement nationwide, according to a 2016 comparison by Eugene Mazo, a Rutgers University law professor.

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Senate Elections Committee Chairman Kevin Blackwell, a Southaven Republican, sponsored the bill, saying that he wants to prevent newly arrived carpetbaggers from being elected to office.

“It shows they’ve got a connection to the area,” Blackwell said. “They’ve got an investment in the area they want to represent and they’re probably familiar with the needs and issues of those people.”

Blackwell lives in DeSoto County, one area of Mississippi where people move around a lot and arrive from other states. He said he’s interested in residency restrictions in part because he believes some past candidates only rented apartments while seeking city offices and really lived somewhere else.

The senator also says he wants to make requirements for offices consistent. For example, the measure would require a transportation commissioner candidate to live in the northern, central or southern districts for five years, equivalent to a public service commissioner.

Blackwell said his plan to require agriculture commissioner candidates to live in the state for five years parallels rules for other statewide offices, and the requiring a district attorney candidate to live in a district for five years parallels rules for judges.

But residency can get people thrown off the ballot. Thursday, the state Republican Executive Committee voted that candidate Perry Parker didn’t meet the residency requirements to run for the Public Service Commission from the southern district.

Candidate Dane Maxwell had challenged Parker’s residency, saying election and homestead exemption records suggested Parker hadn’t lived in Seminary for five years.

Residency law is fuzzy, and a party committee can examine a variety of evidence to make a decision. Parker says he was previously registered to vote in Connecticut and California, but has long owned property in Covington County and has always considered it home.

Residency wasn’t a problem during Parker’s previous unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination to the 3rd Congressional District. Federal law only requires that a senator or representative live in the state they’re representing on election day.

Mazo notes New York elected Robert F. Kennedy and Hillary Clinton to the U.S. Senate even though neither person previously lived in the state.

“New Yorkers didn’t care,” he said.

Mazo said residency requirements go back to the American Revolution. He said the framers of the Constitution disliked the British system, in which members of parliament could be elected from places where one or very few people controlled the electorate, even if the candidate didn’t live there.

“The state may have an interest in its residents being represented by a long-term resident,” the professor said.

But Mazo said others believe voters can decide whether residency matters and said requirements could screen out the best candidates.

“You’re preventing people from running for office and you’re preventing people from voting for someone who may be a good representative,” he said.

Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011.