Reporter's notebook: Where Kristof voted shouldn't matter
Reporter's Notebooks are opinion pieces written by staff of Pamplin Media Group. Jim Redden covers Portland City Hall and Portland in general for the Portland Tribune.
I am surprised that state election officials are questioning whether former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof can run for Oregon governor because he registered to vote in the state where that newspaper is published. I personally know that an Oregon court already has ruled that where a candidate votes does not determine what they consider home. I don't know that because I covered some trial as a reporter. I know it because I testified as a witness in support of the winning candidate, my friend and University of Oregon classmate Bill Wyatt 47 years ago.
Kristof was raised in Yamhill, Oregon, and owns his family's farm there. He filed for the 2022 governor's race on Dec. 20. The Oregon Constitution requires that candidates for governor be a resident of the state for three years before the election. Kristof maintains that he has always considered Oregon his home, even though he moved out of the state for college and employment, and registered to vote in New York while working there. Kristof said that he has repeatedly returned to the farm over the years and invested in it.
The day after Kristof filed, Lydia Plukchi, a compliance specialist with the Oregon Secretary of State's Office, sent him a letter that said, in part, "We typically determine whether candidates meet residency requirements by checking their voter registration records, but your Oregon voter registration record has insufficient information. In addition, it has come to our attention that you voted in New York State as recently as 2020."
Plukchi gave Kristof until Monday, Jan. 3, to provide additional documentation about his Oregon residency. But the question about where he voted was resolved in his favor in 1974 during a trial in the Marion County Circuit Court.
Wyatt is best known as the former director of the Port of Portland. But at that time, he was an Oregon state representative from District 2 on the north coast. He had won the Democrat primary nomination in the May 28 primary election and had been appointed to fill the vacancy created when the incumbent retired before the general election.
I have not yet tracked down the court records and they may no longer exist. But the case was documented at the time in a series of articles in The Oregonian that I have obtained. They started on Oct. 2 of that year with a report that then-Attorney General Lee Johnson had asked Wyatt to verify his residency in the district. The request was made after a resident filed a complaint that said Wyatt had not lived in the district for the year required of legislative candidates because he has moved to Eugene to attend the U of O in 1971. The article said Johnson's office had determined Wyatt registered to vote in Lane County that year, had voted in Eugene in 1972, and had not re-registered to vote in the district until April of 1973.
Wyatt did not dispute that he had registered to vote in Lane County, but said he always considered his home to be in the district. His family had maintained a residence there while he was at college. Johnson advised then-Secretary of State Clay Myers to remove his name from the ballot anyway. Wyatt quickly filed suit in Marion County Circuit Court to restore his name to the ballot.
At the time, I was working for the state Senate Democrat Majority Office at the Oregon Legislature. Because Wyatt and I had been at the U of O at the same time, someone asked me whether I'd voted in Lane County and if I considered Eugene my home then. I said that, although I voted in Eugene, I considered Medford my home, because that's where I was raised, where my family lived, and where I returned during school breaks. So since Wyatt and I agreed, I volunteered to testify in his support during his trial.
I had no problem testifying that I considered Medford my home, even though I voted in Eugene. The deputy Oregon attorney general representing the state asked if I didn't understand that, by signing the voter registration card, I had sworn an oath that I lived in Eugene. I think I replied that I hadn't read it, which prompted laughter in the courtroom, much to my chagrin.
Despite my ignorance of the alleged seriousness of voter registration cards, Marion County Circuit Judge Jena Schlegel ruled in Wyatt's favor and ordered his name restored to the ballot. She determined the question of domicile is largely one of intent, according to an Oct. 26, 1974, Oregonian story on the ruling.
"Continuous physical presence (within the district) is not required, she said. If it were, no one elected to Congress could meet residency requirements for the office," the article reads.
Wyatt won the general election on Nov. 5, 1974, and Johnson advised Myers not to appeal the court ruling. According to a Nov. 14 Oregonian article, Johnson said the case was moot because Wyatt had won the election. But the bottom line is: The state chose not to appeal the decision.
Wyatt went on to become Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber's chief of staff, the director of the Port of Portland, and, now, the director of the Salt Lake City Airport, overseeing its multi-billion dollar renovation.
There are undoubtedly differences between legal requirements for the two offices — governor vs. state representative — and lawyers can be paid good money to quibble over them. If Oregon election officials rule Kristof is not eligible to run for governor, history likely will repeat itself and the question will be decided in court. But everyone should know that a similar case already was decided in the candidate's favor.
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