A question of residency and representation

Over in Chicago, they’re going to elect a new mayor this month. President Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is one of those running to be chief executive of the third largest city in the US. However, securing his place on the ballot paper hasn’t been plain sailing due to legal challenges around his residency “in the town for a year before the election”.

Clearly Emanuel and his family moved to live and work in Washington DC for a year or so before he stepped down – with Obama’s blessing – to return to Chicago to prepare his mayoral campaign. The Chicago Sun Times explains:

Ironically, President Obama would have no problem coming back to Chicago to run for mayor because he never rented out his home and has come back to stay there on rare occasions. “He has a physical location that he owns and has exclusive right to live in,” said attorney Jim Nally.

But Emanuel’s problem as he prepares to run for mayor is that he rented out his house, and the tenant refuses to back out of the lease.

At the end of January, the Illinois State Supreme Court held “that Illinois law and legal precedent were clear on the matter and Rahm is a legal resident of the city”. While the family had “moved most of their clothes and personal belongings to Washington DC … they did leave behind at [their Chicago residence, now leased out to someone else until June 2011] several larger household items, including televisions, a piano, and a bed, as well as several personal possessions such as family heirlooms and books”.

Strangely, while his residency was being challenged with respect to his mayoral candidacy, Emanuel continued to be registered to vote from his leased out Chicago address! (As an aside, there have been 54 mayors of Chicago. Two have been assassinated in office and another two have died in office. Not a great record.)

Closer to home, Gerry Adams has had to jump through a number of hoops to prove his residency in his adopted home of County Louth in order to appear on the electoral register.

But in the UK, residency and representation are far from coupled.

MPs have frequently been “flown in” to contest both safe and marginal seats at the whim of the local constituency organisation.

In Northern Ireland, many MPs and MLAs do not live or vote in their constituency. Some examples from across the parties.

  • The DUP’s Lord Bannside lived in Belfast, but was MLA and MP in North Antrim. His son continues this trend, voting in Lagan Valley, but representing North Antrim in Westminster.
  • Sinn Féin’s Caitríona Ruane lives in County Louth, but is MLA for South Down.
  • The UUP’s Mike Nesbitt votes in East Belfast but will be on the ballot paper for neighbouring Strangford.
  • SDLP and Alliance parties seem to be more consistent with high profile elected representatives living in the areas they represent. No doubt any variations I’ve missed will be pointed out in the comments below!

Would it be better for local representatives to have permanent roots in the communities that they seek to serve? Or is simply enough to let voters make their feelings known at the ballot box?

Update – for clarity, as mentioned in the comments below, the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972, Chapter 9, PART II, Section 3 states that candidates for councils should:

(a) on that day he is a local elector for the district of the council; or

(b) he has during the whole of the twelve months immediately preceding that day—

(i) occupied as owner or tenant any land in the district of the council, or

(ii) resided in the district of the council; or

(c) his principal or only place of work during that twelve months has been in the district of the council.

Belfast City Council’s website express this in plain English on their How to become a councillor page.

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