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Does Rahm meet the residency requirements to run for mayor?
December 2, 2010

Dear Cecil:

Now there seem to be a bunch of challenges to Rahm's eligibility, based on his lack of residency in our fair city for the last two years. I've heard many arguments on both sides of this question. What's the straight dope? What exactly are the residency requirements? Does he meet them? And if he doesn't, does he have the clout to get approved anyway?

— Tim R. Mortiss, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil Adams replies:

This is the most ridiculous controversy to come down the pike in, oh, a good two months. For example, John Kass writes:

I appreciate and respect Rahm. Sure, he's profane, but so am I when I'm not typing, and he's got a great sense of humor. And I believe he should be on the ballot.

Still, there's that nagging issue. It's called the law.

Please, spare me the melodrama. While wacky things have been known to happen in Illinois courts, under any reasonable reading the law squarely favors Rahm.

Let's review. There are two laws applying to Rahm's situation. My friend Greg Hinz says one is a city law and one is a state law. Not so — they're both state laws. If you read only the first one, things look bad for Rahm. Here's what Section 3.1-10-5 of the Illinois Municipal Code says:

A person is not eligible for an elective municipal office unless that person is a qualified elector of the municipality and has resided in the municipality at least one year next preceding the election or appointment.

Rahm did not, of course, live in Chicago for at least one year prior to the election. As one of the petitions objecting to his spot on the ballot states, he moved with his family to Washington, D.C., where he served as Obama's chief of staff from January 2009 till October 2010.

The petition goes on to say:

Illinois municipal law provides no exceptions applicable to [Rahm], that could exempt [him] from the foregoing requirements. 

I'm sorry, that's crap. Let's turn to the second law. Chapter 36, Section 3.2(a) of the Illinois Compiled Statutes includes the following provision:

A permanent abode is necessary to constitute a residence within the meaning of Section 3-1 [which says who's allowed to vote in Illinois]. No elector or spouse shall be deemed to have lost his or her residence in any precinct or election district in this State by reason of his or her absence on business of the United States, or of this State.

Does this second law contradict the first law? Of course not; it merely provides an exception. A number of states have provisions like this in their election statutes. For example, the law in Georgia says:

If a person removes to the District of Columbia or other federal territory, another state, or foreign country to engage in government service, such person shall not be considered to have lost such person's residence in this state during the period of such service; and the place where the person resided at the time of such person's removal shall be considered and held to be such person's place of residence. § 21-2-217(11) (Georgia)

Georgia's law is more explicit than what we've got in Illinois. Nonetheless, it seems clear the Illinois election code is meant to cover similar situations: if you go to work at the White House, or become an ambassador, or perform some comparable public service, you retain your state residency during your absence. It's not necessary to delve into who's currently renting your house or any other such nonsense.

Attorney Burt Odelson, who has filed a challenge to have Rahm removed from the ballot, doesn't see it that way. He's been quoted as saying:

"Service to the United States is when you're in the military," Odelson said. "It's not when you're in service to the president of the United States. If that was the criteria, then the social secretary, the cook, the butler, the driver, everybody's in service to the United States."

Get out. This is a perverse reading of the law. If the drafters meant "business of the United States, or of this State" to apply to military service only, they'd have said so. Illinois statutes contain numerous references to the rights of military personnel on active duty. It would have been simple to include such wording in the electoral code if the residency exemption was meant to apply strictly to those in the armed forces.

But Cecil, you object. How can you presume to know with certainty what was in the minds, such as they are, of Illinois legislators?

I don't have to know. I merely note the following:

  • Rahm Emanuel is a nationally-known figure, former Chicago congressman, and ally of Richie Daley who's well ahead in the polls for the mayor's race and has emerged as the favorite of the Chicago business community. Other than his opponents, I don't know of anyone who seriously contends he's not mayoral timber or shouldn't be allowed to run.

  • Ballot challenges are decided by the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. There are three commissioners, all Chicago lawyers appointed by the circuit court. I don't know much about them, but their bios make it plain they're well-connected members of the Chicago establishment who aren't likely to rock the boat.

  • To justify keeping Rahm on the ballot, the election commissioners must merely offer a straightforward reading of the law as written, a course that will surprise no one. To throw him off, they'll have to base their decision on a tortured interpretation that flies in the face of common sense, in the process creating a national uproar and ticking a lot of powerful people off.

Is it possible? In Bizarro World, which Chicago admittedly resembles at times, anything's possible. In our sector of the galaxy, no. 

— Cecil Adams

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