With their convictions this year, two Los Angeles politicians face prison time for a crime once seen as nearly impossible to prosecute. Former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon was found guilty this week of perjury and voter fraud for lying about where he lived so he could run for city office. With state Sen. Roderick Wright convicted on similar felony charges in January, Alarcon became the ninth politician since 2002 to be successfully prosecuted by the Los Angeles County district attorney for not living in the districts they ran to represent. There was also a Vernon mayor, a West Covina school board member and a Huntington Park city councilwoman, to name just a few. “Any politician who doesn’t take this seriously is really very self-destructive,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. In the past, the vagueness of the legal standard for residency has made these crimes “particularly difficult to prove,” said UC Irvine election law professor Richard Hasen.
California law requires that candidates live in the districts they seek to represent. The election code defines residence for voting purposes as a “domicile,” a home where one intends to remain and return to after an absence.
The law relies on determining a politician’s intent beyond a reasonable doubt, which is often hard to do in a courtroom, Hasen said. In the cases of Alarcon and Wright, he said, it’s possible prosecutors moved against them because they believed they had enough evidence to persuade a jury that the politicians didn’t intend to live in homes within their districts.