President Obama Hasn’t Lived in Illinois in Four Years. Why Does He Vote There?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 6 2012 11:20 AM

Why Are the Obamas Still Eligible To Vote in Illinois?

A mini-Explainer on presidential voting options.

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President Barack Obama calls a volunteer as he visits a campaign office in Chicago on Election Day

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images.

President Obama will be able to spend as much time campaigning on Election Day as he wants to because he voted in Illinois on Oct. 25. An Explainer reader points out that the Obama family resides more than 700 miles from Chicago, at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW in Washington, D.C. Why is the president eligible to vote in Illinois?

Because he’s serving the people. Illinois allows anyone who has “resided in this State and in the election district 30 days” before the election to cast a vote. According to judicial interpretation, residence requires both physical presence and an intent to make the residence a “permanent abode.” People who own houses in different states can choose to make any of them their official residency for voter registration purposes, as long as they can plausibly argue it’s their legitimate home. That would be a close call for the Obamas, who have spent most of the past four years in Washington, D.C., where their children attend school. An article in Chicago magazine noted that a couple who moved into the house next door to the Obamas’ Chicago home in September 2011 didn’t meet the Obamas until January 2012. Fortunately for the president, the Illinois voter-eligibility statute contains an exception for residents who are absent from the state “on business of the United States.”

The Explainer can find no record of any incumbent U.S. president casting his vote in Washington, D.C. (The District lacked representation in the Electoral College until the passage of the 23rd Amendment in 1963.) But many challengers have accused beltway insiders of effectively relocating to Washington. When Al Gore said he would win his home state in 2000, George W. Bush fired up partisans in the state by noting that Gore would probably carry Washington, D.C., but he would lose Tennessee. (Bush was right on both counts.)

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Presidents, senators, and members of the House of Representatives aren’t the only people who need special statutory provisions to maintain their voting status. Illinois law specifically confers eligibility on members of the military and people living in nursing homes. Most states prohibit convicts from other states who are serving time in their state to join the voter rolls, and the same goes for out-of-staters living in Illinois hospitals and mental institutions. Voting eligibility is also a knotty issue for the homeless. They are technically permitted to vote, but they must have a mailing address. Illinois law suggests the address of a shelter, or someone else’s private residence.

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.