Republicans seem increasingly incapable of telling a straight story on where they live. Former White House chief of staff and North Carolina Congressman Mark Meadows claimed a fake residence in someone else’s mobile home in North Carolina and was registered to vote in three states. Charlie Kirk clone and District 1 House candidate Logan Manhart swore that he had been a resident of South Dakota since November 2020 even though he lived in Wisconsin for much of last year and voted in Wisconsin in April 2021. And the rootless, placeless Trump has endorsed at least four carpetbaggers whose out-of-state candidacies for Congress are saved only by the fact that the Constitution‘s only residency requirement for Senators (Article 1 Section 3) and Representatives (Article 1 Section 2) is that they inhabit the state electing them when elected.
Ryan Zinke isn’t really carpetbagging. He was born and grew up in Montana. After 22 years in the Navy, he settled back in Montana, served in the Montana Legislature, and served a term and Montana’s lone Congressman before Trump dragged him away to be his first Interior Secretary. Now Zinke’s running to go back to Congress, this time in the newly restored First Congressional District (the cool, bumpy western quarter with Missoula and Bozeman, not mostly rectangular high lonesome Second to the east). Zinke’s FEC Statement of Candidacy states that the candidate lives at 409 2nd St W in Whitefish. That’s actually the Snow Frog Inn, his bed and breakfast that he opened a few years ago. Zinke appears to spend more time with his wife Lola (a good way to spend one’s time!) in the home she owns in California, a place both Zinke and his wife apparently consider their principal, permanent residence:
…a tax filing submitted with the Santa Barbara county government shows a homeowner exemption for the California home for the fiscal year that started last July. The exemption, which offers a $7,000 deduction on property value assessments, applies to homes that “must have been the principal place of residence of the owner” at the beginning of the calendar year.
“Where a husband and wife have more than one residence, their principal residence is the residence at the place at which they intend to live permanently,” according to a California state statute.
…a search through the recorder’s office at Flathead County, where Whitefish is located, shows no homestead declaration for a primary residence for Zinke [Ben Lefebvre and Daniel Lippman, “Zinke’s Wife Declaring Primary Residence in California as He Runs in Montana,” Politico, 2022.05.13].
Technically, everything here looks kosher. Ryan and Lola are only claiming one primary residence. They aren’t trying to dodge Montana property taxes with an illegal second homestead declaration. And the U.S. Constitution doesn’t say a Congressman has to maintain a permanent residence in his district; he just has to inhabit the state on election day.
But Montana has a voting residency law that, given his declaration of homestead in California, could complicate Lola and Ryan’s logical desire to vote for Ryan in Montana (I bold the key clauses):
13-1-112. Rules for determining residence. For registration, voting, or seeking election to the legislature, the residence of an individual must be determined by the following rules as far as they are applicable:
(1) The residence of an individual is where the individual’s habitation is fixed and to which, whenever the individual is absent, the individual has the intention of returning.
(2) An individual may not gain or lose a residence while kept involuntarily at any public institution, not necessarily at public expense; as a result of being confined in any prison; or solely as a result of residing on a military reservation.
(3) (a) An individual in the armed forces of the United States may not become a resident solely as a result of being stationed at a military facility in the state.
(b) An individual may not acquire a residence solely as a result of being employed or stationed at a training or other transient camp maintained by the United States within the state.
(c) A member of a reserve component of the United States armed forces who is stationed outside of the state but who has no intent of changing residency retains resident status.
(4) An individual does not lose residence if the individual goes into another state or other district of this state for temporary purposes with the intention of returning, unless the individual exercises the election franchise in the other state or district.
(5) An individual may not gain a residence in a county if the individual comes in for temporary purposes without the intention of making that county the individual’s home.
(6) If an individual moves to another state with the intention of making it the individual’s residence, the individual loses residence in this state.
(7) The place where an individual’s family resides is presumed to be that individual’s place of residence. However, an individual who takes up or continues a residence at a place other than where the individual’s family resides with the intention of remaining is a resident of the place where the individual resides.
(8) A change of residence may be made only by the act of removal joined with intent to remain in another place [Montana Code Annotated 13-1-112].
The California statute defining principal residence says, “To qualify for the exemption, a dwelling must be the person’s true, fixed and permanent home and principal establishment to which he/she, whenever absent, intends to return.” To qualify for the California property tax break, Lola, the sole owner of the house, has most definitely fixed her residence in California, which Montana law says disqualifies her from voting in Montana. California law also views Ryan as a permanent resident of California: “Where a husband and wife have more than one residence, their principal residence is the residence at the place at which they intend to live permanently.” Montana law presumes for voting purposes that each Zinke resides where the Zinke family resides, and that residence is California. Ryan could try to squeeze himself onto the Montana voter rolls by citing MCA 13-1-112 clause 7, but he’d be contradicting California’s statutory recognition of their permanent residence in California.
The Zinkes don’t appear to be doing anything illegal yet. But if Lola and Ryan show up in Whitefish on June 7 to cast primary ballots, Lola and Ryan may end up in cuffs as the latest Republican exemplars of voter fraud.
But if everything else is legal, consider the precedent that Zinke is setting: a man can live with his wife in one state, where his wife works and where her relatives live, can even declare their connubial house in that one state their primary, permanent residence, but that man can run for Congress in another state, his home state, the state where he grew up, the state for which he maintains an abiding love and passion to serve the public good. That’s all perfectly legal, as long as neither husband nor wife register to vote in the state where the husband is running for Congress, as long as the husband can find an apartment or room or yurt or lake cabin to inhabit in his preferred state of candidacy on Election Day, and as long as he and his wife don’t try to claim a property tax break on that second abode.
Dang, under that precedent, whom might we have tapped to run against Dusty Johnson this year?