During the three-day special legislative session, called earlier this month to plug holes in Montana's budget, former Billings Rep. Adam Rosendale cast 31 votes from a House district he may not have been living in.
Rosendale was elected last year to represent House District 51, which stretches north along the Yellowstone River to include portions of the Billings South Side and the West End to Shiloh Road.
Following the regular Legislative session that ended last April, the freshman Republican said he began the process of moving to Great Falls where he plans to help his brother develop family-owned property in the Black Eagle area.
“My brother has an apartment here (in Great Falls), and I have friends with places in Billings, so I bounced between the two all summer,” Rosendale said Wednesday. “I still have to go to Billings; it’s not that I’m not connected to it.”
He said he didn’t resign from the legislature until Nov. 16, the Saturday after the special session wrapped up.
Earlier this month, Rosendale said he already had moved to Great Falls, but Wednesday said he had only went long enough to break ground for a new home.
“I was trying to hold off until I built my house before I became a resident in Great Falls,” he said. “That’s when I was really planning on officially moving.”
Legislative vacancies are apparently not policed by any state agency.
A number of state legislators live outside the districts they represent. That’s allowed under Montana’s Constitution, which requires only that legislative candidates maintain residency within the county in which their district is located for at least six months prior to the general election — as long as the district is contained entirely within that county.
For incumbents, however, residency requirements are outlined in a section of state code that addresses how districts become vacant. Among other triggers, vacancies for non-statewide elected officials occur upon “the incumbent's ceasing to be a resident of the state or, if the office is local, of the district, city, county, town, or township” in which they were elected.
Montana’s legal definition of residency essentially boils down to whether the person moved from their previous residence, and whether they relocated with the intent of staying there.
But interpretations of those statutes have varied, as former Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth noted in a 2009 finding, referring to “Montana’s sometimes confusing and inconsistent laws and court decisions governing residency determinations.”
Rosendale last registered to vote in Yellowstone County, according to public voting records. But he has since been placed on the inactive voter list after ballots mailed to his Billings address for the May 2017 school board election and the statewide special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke were returned as undeliverable, county elections administrator Bret Rutherford said.
The Yellowstone County Election Department followed up in June by mailing him a voter confirmation card, and that too was returned as undeliverable. Rosendale’s voter registration became inactive in July.
Residency aside, the presence of Rosendale, whose only votes during the special session came on the House floor, was likely not decisive.
During the frenzied, three-day dash to adjust Montana’s budget, the closest floor vote came on Nov. 15 when the House voted 49-51 against a bill that in part sought to tap the Montana State Fund to help cover the budget gap.
But the legislation was reconsidered later in the day, easily winning passage without any changes signed into law.
Montana State University political science professor David Parker said the issue “is a relatively moot point, unless a lawsuit is filed to challenge some kind of outcome of the special legislative session.”
But the potential for a lawsuit based on an improper vote by the state Legislature does raise other questions, he said.
“The second issue is, I wonder if this is something the Secretary of State’s office should police,” he said.
No vacancy enforcement
Regardless of whether Rosendale’s 31 votes were cast from a technically vacant seat, there doesn’t appear to be any state agency or office charged with enforcing that vacancy.
“One of several circumstances under that statute where a vacancy occurs is when an incumbent ceases to meet the residential qualifications,” Laura Nelson, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, wrote in an email last week. “However, our office has no specific knowledge of Representative Rosendale’s residential status or his intentions.”
While the Secretary of State is charged with overseeing and verifying elections in Montana, as well as maintaining records of legislative acts, Nelson said the office does not police the residency qualifications of candidates or office-holders.
“No matter when he filed his residency, it isn’t anything that our office follows” unless notified by the legislator, she said.
Nor does the Commissioner of Political Practices appear responsible for enforcing the law. Current Commissioner Jeff Mangan said he can’t recall the statute ever entering into a decision his office has made, but also didn’t rule out the possibility of his office having jurisdiction, were a complaint to be filed.
“But in those kind of cases, if we get a question, if it’s not us, we refer them to a particular entity to ask,” Mangan said.
The Legislative Services Division similarly lacks the power to enforce these types of issues, according to its legal department. The division functions as an independent state agency that provides administrative and support services to the Legislature.
Even if the law means that Rosendale was casting votes from a vacant seat, he wasn’t the first to have done so.
At the beginning of the 2015 regular session, former Rep. Christy Clark relocated to Helena from her House district spanning Choteau and nearby portions of the Rocky Mountain Front. Yet she continued to vote in the Legislature after that move.
Despite criticism from some Democrats in the state, Rosendale maintains he didn’t have any problems staying in touch with the people of House District 51 leading up to and throughout November’s special session.
“When we go up to Helena for the (regular) session and are there for four months, it’s easy to get ahold of people from Billings,” he said. “I’m not just literally abandoning them, I’m slowly making sure that things are being taken care of and loose ends are tied up.”