Sorting out candidates' residency shouldn't be difficult

info@islandpacket.comNovember 30, 2012 

Where do you live?

The question is so simple we expect kindergarten students to answer it without hesitation. Yet two local elected officials, when asked the same question, provided long, convoluted responses that might have passed legal inspection but didn't fully quell suspicions they don't live in the district they ran to represent.

Beaufort County Councilwoman-elect Cynthia Bensch and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney each deserved the benefit of the doubt -- and received it -- when they successfully defended themselves in protests by their challengers in the Nov. 6 election. Both won by convincing margins. There should be no doubt about the merits of a protest if the result is overturning the voters' will.

But what interests are protected if it's impossible for a protest to succeed, as happened with these two challenges? Simple changes to the filing requirements for aspiring office-holders would provide greater transparency and safeguard the electoral process.

The state constitution requires Senate candidates to live in the district they seek to represent at the time they file. State election laws require those vying for county seats to live in their district by the date of the general election. But the state takes no steps to ensure that they do.

In fact, candidates can list a post office box instead of a street address on their filing forms -- Pinckney did that -- and no one verifies a physical address when it is listed.

Even if we assume the large number of primary and general-election candidates makes it cost-prohibitive and time-prohibitive for the state to confirm every address, it is not a burden for those seeking office to provide a physical address and to provide documents to prove it.

In fact, if the candidates were registering to vote instead of filing for office, they would have to do just that, as well as swear that it was their only legal residence. (They would also have to show on a diagram included on the registration form -- noting nearby landmarks and labeling streets -- where their house is located.)

Additionally, candidates should be required to notify elections officials of any change of address between the time they file and the general election -- if not immediately, then at least when filing campaign-disclosure forms with the state Ethics Commission at prescribed intervals.

Such rules would have made a material difference in the protests against Bensch and Pinckney. In fact, they might have erased the doubts that prompted them in the first place.

That's because the state law already makes it a crime for candidates to falsify filing information. So Leilani Bessinger's protest, argued Tuesday before the state Election Commission, could have focused on the question most pertinent to voters: Does Pinckney live where he says he lives?

That would have been a difficult enough challenge, given the state's fuzzy definition of an "official" residence. But as it stands, Bessinger not only had to track Pinckney to addresses in Charleston, Lexington and Aiken, her burden technically required proving he didn't live in any of the thousands of addresses within his district.

Similarly, had Bensch been required to keep election officials apprised as she moved from one address to another between the time she filed in March and the time she was elected in November -- authenticating each stop -- it might have stemmed challenger Dan Duryea's Nov. 19 protest before the Beaufort County Board of Elections and Voter Registration.

Complicated circumstances that lead to complicated living arrangements should not disqualify someone from holding office.

Nonetheless, living among the people who elect you is fundamental to representative government. As such, it is not unfair to require a candidate to provide an honest answer to a question so simple even a kindergartner wouldn't trip over it.

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