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Residency complaints among politicians hard to prove

Delaware Public Media

Roam around Legislative Hall long enough and questions about where lawmakers actually live aren’t hard to find.

Most recently, those rumors have focused on Rep. Melanie George Smith (D-Bear), who co-chairs the powerful Joint Finance Committee.

Public records filed with New Castle County Recorder of Deeds show Smith took out a $417,000 mortgage Aug. 19 on a nearly 4,000 square foot house on Amaranth Drive north of Newark – about 11 miles outside of her representative district.

10 days prior to that, she refinanced a loan on her 2,900 square foot Calvarese Drive home within her district for $290,000.

"You can step inside and look at my underwear drawer to see that all the ducks are in a row." -Rep. Melanie George Smith (D-Bear)

When contacted last week, Smith denied any plans to move, saying she owns other properties, including a row home in Elsmere and other real estate in the Poconos.

“You can step inside and look at my underwear drawer to see that all the ducks are in a row,” she said in an interview with Delaware Public Media.

When asked why she bought the house on Amaranth Drive, Smith repeated her offer to have a reporter search through her and her family’s possessions.

“I live here. 12 Calvarese Drive has always been my primary residence.”

One of Smith’s Bear neighbors also confirmed that she and her family still reside next door.

Rumors have also swirled around whether Senate Majority Leader David McBride (D-Hawks Nest) lives in his New Castle-area district, or at his beach house.

McBride first bought property in Lewes in 1998, eventually settling in the Wolfe Pointe development in 2005. In June, the General Assembly named a bathhouse at Cape Henlopen State Park after him.

"“Like a lot of Delawareans, Margaret and I are fortunate to own a vacation home in Lewes and we enjoy spending time there with our family. My primary residence is and always has been in the 13th District and I’m proud to call it home," McBride said in a statement.  

It can difficult to determine a politician’s primary residency from property records alone.

When candidates file to run for office, the state Department of Elections crosschecks the address on their application with their address in the DMV and voter registration databases.

But State Election Commissioner Elaine Manlove says her staff doesn't "follow [candidates] home every night to check how often they're sleeping there."

“If somebody tells me where they live and that’s the house that they’re registered to vote at, that their driver’s license is at, we assume that’s their house unless someone tells us differently,” Manlove said.

The only time her department checks, she says, is if someone files an official complaint.  That kind of formal check also involves the Attorney General’s office.

Manlove notes each election cycle she gets one or two complaints, but she’s never disqualified a candidate in her nearly 20-year career.

Kathy McGuiness, a Rehoboth Beach commissioner and one of six Democrats who sought the party’s nomination for Lieutenant Governor this year, faced scrutiny over years she split between Delaware and Park City, Utah.

Manlove eventually ruled McGuiness as eligible to run, despite voting in the 2012 general election in Utah and obtaining a drivers license there after she says she lost her Delaware license.

James DeMartino, a Republican challenger to House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach), also faced a challenge to his residency this year. He will appear on the ballot after showing elections officials a paystub and pieces of mail sent to his house in Lewes.

"We don't follow them home every night to check how often they're sleeping there." -State Election Commissioner Elaine Manlove

The Delaware Constitution requires anyone running for the state General Assembly to have reached a certain age, lived in Delaware for three years and the last year in their district.

But it doesn’t specifically define what residency looks like, creating a difficult question to resolve, according to UD political science department chair David Redlawsk.

“Because in most states residency requirements are not as obvious as they may seem to be – that is, how do you establish residency?"

At the federal level, requirements are even more lax. Members of Congress only have to be a certain age, be a citizen for several years prior to running and be a resident of the state by the time they’re elected.

Politicians in states with more than one congressional district don’t even have to live within those boundaries, according to the U.S. Constitution.

Redlawsk says that’s why courts generally don’t take up these issues, instead letting the ballot box decide.

“It probably does make sense to leave it primarily in the voters’ hands unless it is so obvious as to just sort of go beyond the pale, as it were – somebody who clearly never lived in the jurisdiction but is running nonetheless,” he said.

While voters had their say when McGuiness came in third in the Democratic primary for Lieutenant Governor’s, they won’t in the cases of Smith and McBride – at least this year.  Both are running unopposed.