Alabama GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville has come under scrutiny following reports that he recently sold the last remaining properties he owns in the state that he represents in the U.S. Senate. Instead, Tuberville appears to live almost full time at his beach house in the Florida panhandle.
Although details are still emerging about Tuberville’s precise living situation, The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler has reported that the Auburn, Alabama, address Tuberville listed when he declared his candidacy for Senate in 2019 is co-owned by his wife and son. Kessler’s review of campaign finance reports and property documents related to Tuberville “indicate that his home is actually a $3 million, 4,000-square-foot beach house he has lived in for nearly two decades in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida.”
Why does this matter?
Because Tuberville is running up against one of the oldest constitutional requirements that apply to anyone running for Congress: that candidates must live in the state they represent by the time they take office.
But whether Tuberville’s situation actually violates the Constitution – or matters to voters – is another question.
Residency requirements in Congress
The legal requirement that candidates and members of legislative bodies live in the place they represent is not new. In the case of Congress, it was debated heavily during the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
The framers decided that members of both the House and the Senate would be required only to be “an inhabitant” of the state they represent. Strange as it may sound, this means that House members don’t even need to live in their specific district – just their home state. In fact, a 2017 report from The Washington Post found that about 5% of all House members don’t live in the districts they represent.
Legal consequences for nonresidency
In Tuberville’s case, it’s possible that he doesn’t meet the constitutional minimum of state residency. Whether he might face any consequences for this potential violation, however, is unclear.
Courts and congressional committees have looked into similar violations in the past. They have generally opted for a wide interpretation of what is called “inhabitancy,” often settling for evidence that a member paid taxes in or was registered to vote in the state, even if it was at an address that the member spent little to no time in.
Officials at state and local levels, however, where residency requirements can be stronger, have paid the price for being a nonresident. A 2001 legal opinion from the Georgia attorney general found that if a state legislator “moves his permanent residence outside his district, the office will become vacant as a matter of law,” meaning that the lawmaker would disqualify themselves from serving.
This is precisely what happened in my hometown of Boise, Idaho, when a city councilwoman was legally forced out of office after she inadvertently moved out of the district she was representing.
Why have residency requirements?
Although it can be inconvenient, there are good reasons to establish legal residency requirements.
The framers discussed many of them: Alexander Hamilton argued that because of the residency requirement, representatives in Congress “will not only bring with them a considerable knowledge of its laws, and a local knowledge of their respective districts.” In other words, representatives with local ties would be more likely to understand the unique needs of their constituents and thus how to best represent them.
But these requirements aren’t without their drawbacks. For instance, my own research suggests that in states with stricter residency requirements, their state legislative districts as a whole are more gerrymandered – that is, districts are drawn for the purpose of benefiting the election of a particular legislator or party. Why? Because state legislatures that decide their states’ redistricting processes appear to go out of their way to draw misshapen districts to include the homes of incumbents.
Residency requirements also pose a significant hurdle to candidate quality. That’s because, unlike in Congress, states often set even stricter standards for offices like governor and state legislator, in some cases requiring many years of residency before qualifying for candidacy. The more onerous the residency requirement – for example, requiring five rather than two years of residency before holding office – the more otherwise qualified citizens the law excludes from serving.
In my own analysis of gubernatorial residency requirements, I found that many states prevent as much as one-fifth of their residents from serving as governor as a result of residency requirements and more than 30% in Alaska’s case.
At a time when fewer and fewer Americans show any interest in running for office – even while they disapprove of politicians more and more – this is a serious concern for citizens and lawmakers to reckon with.
Will Tuberville pay for carpetbagging?
Even if Tuberville doesn’t face legal trouble, it could become a political liability for him, and the political science research bears this out. In my book, “Home Field Advantage,” I found that candidates who were born and raised in their home districts consistently outperform so-called “carpetbaggers” – those with few to no ties to their districts – in congressional elections.
This has also played out in high-profile ways in the real world. During 2022’s midterm elections campaign, the news buzzed with Pennsylvania voters’ ridicule for Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz’s attempts to come across like a regular Pennsylvanian while – among other mishaps – recording campaign videos at his home in New Jersey and mispronouncing the name of a local grocery store chain.
Some of Tuberville’s rural-state colleagues, like Montana Democrat Jon Tester and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, have also vastly outperformed their party’s expectations in their states, thanks in part to deep local ties and authenticity.
On the other hand, Tuberville is a Republican in GOP-dominated Alabama and a loyal soldier for former President Donald Trump in a state where Trump is popular. Plus, although Tuberville was born and raised in Arkansas, he became a hero in Alabama in the 2000s as a successful head coach for the Auburn University football program.
Tuberville also has plenty of time to clean up this mess, as he is not up for reelection again until 2026. However, unless he can show some more concrete evidence of residency, a lawsuit challenging his local credentials may not be out of the question.
Charles R. Hunt does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.