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Lawmakers Face Questions About Whether They Live In Their Districts

Florida's capitol complex, as seen from above (undated photo)

Several Florida Democratic lawmakers are facing questions about where they live. Some suspect the legislators are living outside of the districts they represent. It’s an issue that arose after lawmakers drew new voting district lines. And Regan McCarthy reports it’s raised the question of what it means to live somewhere.

When lawmakers drew new voting district lines, it caused some upheaval in the Florida legislature.  The changes pitted incumbents against incumbents and moved some district lines so lawmakers were no longer living in the districts they had been representing. But that’s something Justin Levitt who teaches law at Loyola law school in Los Angeles California, said it's to be expected--especially when the redistricting process changes, as it did when Florida’s fair district amendments were applied for  the first time.

“It’s a danger sign when it’s dramatically shifted toward one sign or the other. But that doesn’t actually prove the case. It could well be that what you see is a sort of correction for the abuses of the past,” Levitt said.

Levitt said that can happen when independent commissions are given control of drawing a district’s voting lines instead of leaving that up to lawmakers. And he said that’s often because commissions work to draw district lines that better adhere to already created communities. But he said the fact that so many of the lawmakers in Florida who are now living outside of their past districts are Democrats, is a bit of a red flag.  And that’s an issue Representative Perry Thurston has raised. Thurston, a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale has faced some questions about his residency lately.

“The question that should be asked is if Representative Thurston has lived there the first seven years that he’s been serving the district, why’s it becoming an issue? Well, it’s becoming an issue because when you have partisanship with drawing the lines you’ll have what you have in my situation where the leadership that draws the lines draws the lines directly behind my house,” Thurston said.

Thurston said he’d be interested in creating an independent commission to take care of redistricting in Florida. But in the meantime, he maintains he is living, “squarely within his district.” And Thurston isn’t the only one who’s faced those questions. Tallahassee Democratic Representative Alan Williams has come under similar scrutiny.

After redistricting William’s  moved the address he used to register to vote from a street outside his new district to Olive Avenue, where Williams says he grew up is. But some questioning whether, despite getting new addresses, Williams and others in the same boat are really living in their district houses. And it turns out, that’s a hard question to answer.

Right now, there’s no clear definition for what it means for a Florida lawmaker to live in his or her district. The U.S. Census defines the idea of what’s called “usual residence” as the place a person lives and sleeps most of the time. How does that apply to Williams? Here’s the explanation he gave me when I met him outside the house that's in his current district and asked how often he sleeps there.

“I have the opportunity to represent district eight in a way that I think has hopefully been good for my constituents. And around the issue of residency and where one lives, I think you have to go back to the  definition from a political perspective  of are you engaged? Are you invested? And do you meet the intent of the rule?”

And Senate President Don Gaetz  said he wants to work toward creating clearer guidelines for lawmaker residency rules.

“What we need, I think, is more specificity. Is it enough that you vote in the district that you represent? Is it enough that you homestead there? Is is enough that you get your newspaper there, that you pay your water bill there? What are the real test of residency?”

Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford  have asked Florida’s Secretary of State to collect information about where each lawmaker is registered to vote by the first of next month. But Moore with the Leon County elections office said people aren’t required to do anything to prove they live somewhere before being registered to vote there.  The states leaders have also asked their lawyers to examine Florida’s residency rules.