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Oregon officials want more evidence Kristof meets residency requirement to run for governor

Nick Kristof speaks with the media, answering questions about his campaign for Oregon governor, Oct. 27, 2021 at First Presbyterian Church of Portland.
Nick Kristof speaks with the media, answering questions about his campaign for Oregon governor, Oct. 27, 2021 at First Presbyterian Church of Portland.

In a letter to Nick Kristof, the Secretary of State's office says it needs more information to determine whether the former New York Times journalist meets a three-year residency standard.

Nick Kristof’s much-publicized bid to become Oregon’s next governor has encountered a long-expected hurdle: the question of whether or not the former globetrotting New York Times columnist meets the state’s three-year residency requirement for its top elected office.

The Democrat’s attorneys have argued for months that he does qualify; they even released a 15-page memo laying out Kristof’s upbringing in Yamhill, his long-held love for the state, and his increasing presence here recently as he took over the family farm.

But the Oregon Secretary of State’s office still has questions. A day after Kristof formally filed to run for office, state elections officials sent him notice that they need more information to decide whether he actually can.

“We typically determine whether candidates meet residency requirements by checking their voter registration records, but your Oregon voter registration record has insufficient information,” Lydia Plukchi, a compliance specialty with the office, wrote in a letter to Kristof on Tuesday. “In addition, it has come to our attention that you voted in New York State as recently as 2020. Our office has reviewed the published legal memo concerning your residency in Oregon, but the memo does not address the effect of that vote on your Oregon residency.”

Plukchi requested that Kristof respond with “any documentation or explanation in addition to your published legal memo” that he will have been an Oregon resident for three years prior to November 2022, when the general election for governor is held.

Asked about the inquiry, Kristof’s campaign said Tuesday that it is just a standard procedure. But the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and his camp had reason to believe the subject of his residency would see scrutiny.

Earlier this month, the Secretary of State’s office reached out to Kristof’s campaign about concerns that he had not filed his candidacy yet. While Kristofcreated a political action committee in October, and has since raised millions of dollars, he had until March to officially become a candidate.

That posed potential issues for state elections officials. According to documents obtained in a public records request, P.K. Runkles-Pearson, the chief legal counsel for Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, wrote to Kristof’s attorney on Dec. 1 about some “logistical concerns.”

“Media reports (and your substantial published memo) suggest that determining Mr. Kristof’s residency may not be as simple as consulting the [voter registration] database and checking a box,” Runkles-Pearson wrote.

She added that, because determining Kristof’s residency would require legal interpretation, it is possible elections officials’ decision will be appealed – either by Kristof or by a campaign that doesn’t believe he qualifies for the ballot.

“In short, Mr. Kristof’s candidacy could reasonably generate an extended legal challenge, whether or not there is a determination that he meets minimum qualifications for office,” Runkles-Pearson wrote. “A legal challenge could take months.”

The concern, she wrote, was that such a challenge would extend past a March deadline for printing ballots for the May primary election in which Kristof wants to run.

In a response, Kristof’s attorney, Misha Isaak, referred to “the Elections Division’s deferential treatment of candidates’ own views about their residency.” He attached a press release from 1992, in which former Secretary of State Phil Kiesling announced that a candidate for the state Senate qualified for the ballot after moving a trailer into the legislative district he was running in.

Without “clear and convincing evidence,” Kiesling said at the time, he would “place substantial weight” on the candidate’s sworn testimony that he intended the trailer to be his primary residence.

Kristof has said repeatedly that he has always considered Oregon his home, despite spending much of his life living on the East Coast or abroad, and voting in New York last year. His attorneys have said that the 2020 vote does not make him a New Yorker, arguing that the state allows voters to participate in elections even if it’s not their principal residence.

“Nothing in the Oregon Constitution or the historical sources used to interpret its meaning suggest that registration to vote in another jurisdiction alone disqualifies a person from residential eligibility for governor,” the memo from Kristof’s campaign said.

Kristof has some support in his notion that this sentiment could be sufficient. In a recent op-ed, three former Oregon secretaries of state – Jeanne Atkins, Bill Bradbury and Kiesling – wrote that a candidate’s opinion on their own residence makes a difference.

“When it came to determining candidate residency and related questions, our North Star was a simple one,” they wrote. “Absent compelling evidence to the contrary, a person should be presumed to be a resident of the place or places they consider to be home.”

Melissa Navas, a Kristof spokesperson, said Tuesday that perspective should hold weight with Fagan, the current secretary.

“Nick has always considered Oregon his home,” Navas wrote. “The Elections Division’s review is standard operating procedure, and three former Oregon secretaries of state have interpreted the residency standard to include, not exclude, candidates in order to protect and expand participation in our democracy; we have no reason to think Secretary Fagan would do otherwise.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.