On Monday, former Congressman and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel encountered a significant speed bump in his bid to become the next mayor of Chicago when an Illinois appellate court ordered that his name be removed from the ballot in a 2-1 decision on the grounds that he did not meet residency requirements. Yesterday, the state Supreme Court stayed the ruling and agreed to consider the case on an expedited basis—ensuring that Emanuel’s name will be on ballots if they are printed before the high court reaches a decision. Regardless of how Emanuel’s case turns out, his troubles are instructive for others seeking office who may have to deal with residency issues.

The appellate court’s decision overturning a unanimous determination by the Chicago Board of Elections that Emanuel was qualified to run came as a surprise. The appellate court found that Emanuel, who spent the last two years in Washington, failed to meet the requirement that mayoral candidates reside in Chicago for at least a year prior to the election. In their appeal to the state’s Supreme Court, Emanuel’s attorneys called the appellate court ruling “one of the most far-reaching election law rulings" in the state’s history and charged that the appellate court had applied an unprecedentedly strict definition of residency. Prior to the appellate court decision, public opinion polls showed Emanuel holding a commanding lead with less than a month remaining before the February 22 general election.

Questions about Emanuel’s Illinois residency are not new. He was twice purged from Illinois voter rolls—once in October 2009 when he was declared inactive but was reinstated and allowed to vote in a February 2010 election. In May of last year, he was again declared inactive but successfully re-registered to vote in October under a new address.

Richard Kavanaugh, an election law attorney with the Joliet, Illinois, firm Kavanaugh, Grumley & Gorbold, LLC, says the law is relatively clear. If Emanuel can prove a place of residency in Chicago in his name going back at least a year, he is eligible to run. However, Kavanaugh cautions that, despite its issuance of a stay, the Supreme Court may not ultimately decide in Emanuel’s favor.  

The appellate court’s decision has been tarnished by speculation that the judges who voted to reject Emanuel’s candidacy— Thomas E. Hoffman and Shelvin Louise Marie Hall— were motivated by politics. Both were backed for election by a committee chaired by Alderman Edward Burke, whose wife is a state Supreme Court judge and an outspoken backer of another mayoral candidate, former school board president Gery Chico. (Some had speculated that Judge Burke would recuse herself from the case, but she has not opted to do so.) Yesterday, Chicago’s ABC affiliate ran a piece on the history of political bad blood between Alderman Burke and Emanuel going back to 2001. Any appearance of impropriety in the case is likely to provoke further investigations into the Burkes’ political motivations.

While the Constitution is clear on the requirements for those seeking federal office—one needs to be a U.S. citizen, a resident of the state one seeks to represent at the time of the election, and over a given age depending on the office—residency issues in state and local elections can be trickier and are often freighted with political overtones.

When former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford intimated that he might challenge Sen. Gillibrand in her first election for the New York Senate seat she had been appointed to, the fact that he had never filed a New York State tax return became a potent political issue. When Elizabeth Dole ran unsuccessfully for re-election to her North Carolina Senate seat in 2008, the fact that she had lived in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., since 1975 became a serious liability.

Residency requirements for non-federal elections vary from locality to locality and state to state. While exceptions are sometimes made for federal service, such as military deployment, potential candidates who have been away from home for a significant amount of time before an election would be wise to expect a residency challenge from their opponents—and even if all legal requirements are met, accusations of carpet-bagging or being out of touch with the district are sure to follow.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com