Must elected leaders live in their districts?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Rachael Warriner/Shutterstock
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Must elected leaders live in their districts?

What the New York Post got wrong in its story about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s residence.
February 26, 2019

In many professions it doesn’t really matter if people live in the same place as where they work. Many New York City Police Department officers, for example, live outside the city, as do people in all sorts of other professions, whether it is teaching, driving, cooking, or anything else. What is usually the most important requirement is that someone knows how to do their job well. If they happen to live nearby, all the better. But for most types of work, geography is besides the point.

Being a politician, however, is hardly anyone’s conception of a typical 9-to-5 job.

The point of having elections is so that citizens can choose the representatives who best reflect their interests. This might mean that a voter supports a candidate with a similar personal background or shared values. Other times, voters cast their lot behind someone who deeply understands the social, economic or political issues that matter to a community. One easy way to demonstrate this is to be from the same community that you represent. But for some elected leaders that is not the case – for better or worse.

While living in the area you represent is good politics, it is not always required.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has faced scrutiny in recent days over whether she lives among the people she represents, but she is hardly the only elected leader to be the subject of confusion about the rules of holding elected office. That is because residency requirements vary at the local, state and federal levels. Though rules can vary depending on the position, for elected officials who represent New York City, the state has the highest bar.

A Feb. 24 story in the New York Post suggested that Ocasio-Cortez might live outside her district. A spokesman for the first-term lawmaker told City & State that she lives in her district. But what the Post got wrong in its reporting – and later corrected – was that members of Congress do not need to live in their districts.

There are only three requirements to be a representative in the U.S. Constitution. You have to be at least 25 years old, live in the state you represent and be a citizen for the past seven years. U.S. senators must be at least 30 years old, live in the state they represent and have been a citizen for nine years. For example, Hillary Clinton only had to live in New York by Election Day in order to qualify to represent the state in the U.S. Senate.

As of April 2017, there were 21 members of Congress who lived outside their districts, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. This includes Rep. Nydia Velázquez, whose Brooklyn home is a few hundred feet on the wrong side of the district line. While she had hoped the situation would be mitigated following the 2010 census, it was not to be, a spokesman confirmed on Feb. 25. “Nydia lives in and for three decades has lived in the community she represents,” spokesman Alex Haurek said. “New York’s 7th District includes almost all of Red Hook, the neighborhood in which she currently resides about 500 feet from the district line. She’ll continue working on behalf of all parts of her diverse, three-borough district as she’s done since being elected.”

Do her constituents care? Her 87.9-point margin of victory in the 2018 midterm election would suggest they do not.

For Grand Island Supervisor Nate McMurray, however, living inside the district he wanted to represent might have made the difference in his unsuccessful bid last year to unseat embattled Republican Rep. Chris Collins, who was indicted before the election on insider trading charges. Grand Island is outside New York’s 27th Congressional District. Had McMurray lived on the other side of the Niagara River, he might have avoided some controversy and ultimately gotten the 1,000 additional votes – out of 280,000 total ballots – he needed to win.

At the state level, the rules get a little tougher. Statewide officials, including the governor, must have established their residency in the state for at least five years before being elected. State senators and Assembly members must also meet this requirement and live in their district for the previous 12 months, according to the state constitution. There is a little wiggle room in redistricting years, when candidates must show that they lived in the county they would represent.

Whether it’s at the local, state or federal levels, court challenges over a candidate’s residency usually come down to a “smell test” of the evidence, whether it is a driver’s license, utility bill or a dry cleaning receipt, according to Jerry Goldfeder, an election attorney. “There is no bright line test,” he said of proving residency. “You have to demonstrate that it is a bona fide residence.”

New York City Councilman Francisco Moya was able to survive a political challenge to his residency during his 2017 race to represent part of Queens. But in at least one case, a failure to meet New York City’s residency rules resulted in the nullification of an election. That is what happened to New York City Councilman Mathieu Eugene following a 2007 election to replace Yvette Clarke, who was elected to Congress. The City Charter requires that members of the City Council – as well as the mayor, public advocate and borough presidents – live in the areas they represent once they take office. Yet Eugene refused to sign an affidavit attesting to his residency after he won the election – though he maintained his objection centered around a technical matter, The New York Times reported at the time. Thus, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had to schedule a second special election.

Like with Velazquez, voters did not seem to care about where Eugene lived. He won a second time and his ability to win two elections in a 10-week span quickly became fodder for his own political legend – which conveniently leaves out one important detail out his electoral success. “Dr. Mathieu Eugene made history by becoming the first Haitian-born official elected to the New York City Council,” reads the biography on his City Council webpage. “He was also the first to win his seat overwhelmingly in two special elections just a few months apart, causing some to dub him ‘The Haitian Sensation.’”

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.