A variety of laws are likely to be implicated when an elected official endeavors to make it appear that he or she lives somewhere that he or she does not live, as appears to have been the case with Democrat Representative John Carnevale (Providence, Johnston), according to a WPRI report. However, having looked into the law surrounding a person’s status as an elector pretty closely in the context of a local Tiverton controversy, I thought I’d chime in on that particular, narrow matter.
The state constitution requires that elected officials be “qualified elector[s]” for their positions (basically, that they would be eligible to vote for somebody to fill that office), and “elector” isn’t quite the same thing as “resident.” Indeed, the status of one’s residence can have many different standards depending on whether we’re talking about the right to vote, driver’s licenses, federal taxes, and so on.
My conclusion was that, when it comes to being an elector in a particular town, once one has established an address for the purposes of voting, that address remains the person’s “domicile” until he or she registers to vote elsewhere or affirmatively states that it is not his or her “domicile.” General Assembly districts are not drawn according to city and town lines, but that does not appear to alter the underlying law.
Although it seems obvious that an elected official should actually live in the area that he or she represents, in a dynamic society, we have good reason to allow some flexibility. Suppose Representative Q has some reason to sleep more often than not at some location other than his primary residence for a time. As this state of affairs continues, he chooses to rent his home out for the income, but still considers it his home and intends to return there.
Our right to vote should not be like a game of Twister in which political opponents need only catch the slip of a finger to disenfranchise us. The standard is: “If you would choose one place as your home, to shape government there, where is it?”
To be sure, this principle allows for what most of us would consider to be corrupt deception, but I’m describing eligibility. It would be very reasonable for voters to choose electors for office who actually live in their districts. Trying to offload that power and responsibility to some underlying law or regulation simply papers over the problem.
In my view, Rep. Carnevale’s details are mostly a sideshow to the most important question: How did Rhode Island’s political system not produce anybody able to run on the platform of actually living in the district? For three out of his four elections, Carnevale hasn’t had an opponent in either the primary or the general election.
Something is severely broken, in Rhode Island, when nobody is interested in running, or maybe willing to run, against a guy who is pretending to live at a particular address. We need to figure out what that something is.