What happens if an elected official moves out of his or her jurisdiction at some point after being elected? MRSC periodically gets calls on this issue, such as when an elected official’s house burns down or an elected official separates from his/her spouse and has to move out of the marital residence, and the official in each case cannot, temporarily, find another suitable residence within the jurisdiction. Can an elected official live outside of the jurisdiction in which he or she was elected for a period of time and still retain that elected position?
The answer depends upon how the relevant state law applies to the specific facts. RCW 42.12.010, which deals with when an elective office becomes vacant, provides that one of the causes of a vacancy is the elected official
ceasing to be a legally registered voter of the district, county, city, town, or other municipal or quasi municipal corporation from which he or she shall have been elected or appointed, including where applicable the council district, commissioner district, or ward from which he or she shall have been elected or appointed .
To continue to be a legally registered voter, a person must maintain residence in the precinct in which he or she is registered. See RCW 29A.08.010(2). “Residence” in this context means “a person’s permanent address where he or she physically resides and maintains his or her abode.” RCW 29A.04.151.
However, MRSC legal staff have opined, based on case law, that residency not only requires actual presence but also the intent to make a particular place one’s residence. Legally, an individual may only have one permanent residence at any one time; you can’t legally be a registered voter in two places at the same time and vote in both places. In order to establish a new legal residence, the individual must not only move his/her physical residence, but the move must be combined with an intention to abandon the old residence and establish a new permanent residence. In our opinion, this means that an elected official may in certain factual scenarios temporarily reside outside the corporate limits of the jurisdiction without jeopardizing his or her ability to remain in office.
So, for example, if a town councilmember can’t find a suitable place to rent after her house burned down and so rents outside of town, she should be able to retain her registered voting status in town and, consequently, also her town council position if she intends to move back into town as soon as possible. But it’s not really clear how long that moving back can be delayed. That would be a decision for the court if the official’s residency is challenged.
So, yes, an elected official can move out of the city, county, or special purpose district that they serve if the move is temporary and the individual intends to move back into the jurisdiction and reestablish permanent residence there as soon as reasonably possible. It’s a fact specific issue.
While technology for “connecting” from remote places has certainly improved in recent years, our laws still require that an elected official reside in the jurisdiction so that the official presumably knows something about the community, its issues, and its people.
A related issue is whether local governments in Washington can establish residency requirements for their employees. But that’s one that warrants a separate blog post!