BUCKHANNON — A state senator from Upshur County is facing questions about whether he met West Virginia residency requirements prior to running for office in 2014.
The Charleston Gazette-Mail first reported on May 27 that Sen. Robert Karnes, R-11, was still registered to vote in Lake County, Florida, in addition to being registered to vote in Upshur County. A week later, the Charleston newspaper followed up with information that Karnes voted in a 2010 Florida election, calling into question whether he met the five-year residency requirement when he ran for senate in West Virginia in 2014.
The Record Delta was made aware of the residency question in a Letter to the Editor from Patrick Long, which appears in today’s paper.
According to information from the Lake County Supervisor of Elections Office, Robert L. Karnes canceled his voter registration on May 26, 2017 — just one day prior to the publication of the Gazette-Mail article.
Karnes told The Record Delta Monday that he was, in fact, registered to vote in Florida previously.
“I don’t think it’s any big secret that I have a business in Florida, but I live in West Virginia now,” Karnes said via telephone.
According to the Lake County elections office, Karnes also voted in the Sunshine State’s general election on Nov. 2, 2010.
Only residents of Florida can legally vote in their elections.
That 2010 vote would be four years prior to Karnes’ election to state senate in West Virginia. But the W.Va. State Constitution — Article IV, Section 4-4 — requires that those running for senate must be at least 25 years old and “must have been citizens of the state for five years next preceding their election or appointment.”
According to Donald Kersey, elections director and deputy legal counsel for the W.Va. Secretary of State’s Office, the five-year requirement for state senate candidates means that the person must have lived in the Mountain State for five consecutive years before being elected.
“The ‘next preceding’ language simply means consecutive,” Kersey wrote in an email to The Record Delta. “To the best of what I can infer from the Constitution, the five-year requirement for senators begins when they establish their residency (which is not expressly defined in the Constitution of W.Va. Code). However, generally speaking, the law usually defines ‘residence’ as consistent with ‘domicile,’ which is a person’s intent to remain in a single place indefinitely. For example, if a senate candidate bought an apartment in W.Va. five years ago, but lived full-time in Ohio, the senate candidate has not established his or her residence in W.Va.”
Yet, if a senate candidate sold his or her house in a different state and moved their family to West Virginia, the candidate would likely meet the requirements, Kersey said.
Karnes told The Record Delta that he was aware of the five-year requirement and had satisfied it.
“To answer your question, I believe I fully meet the requirements,” Karnes said. “I know that I lived in West Virginia for five years; I know that I’m required to.”
When asked if he had voted in the 2010 general election in Florida, Karnes said he wasn’t sure.
“Yeah, I really don’t have any idea,” Karnes said. “I can’t swear that I didn’t. It’s not something I’m going to go back and look at. I have no idea if I did or not.”
“I have a life, and that’s really not the obsession of my life. It’s not really an important factor as far as I can tell,” the senator added. “Is this a hit job? I thought you wanted to talk about the issues and what we were doing down here (in the state Legislature). I don’t really want to hear about this.”
According to the Upshur County Clerk’s Office, Karnes first registered to vote in Upshur County on Jan. 25, 1999, and canceled that registration in 2004. He re-registered to vote on Feb. 2, 2012.
In Upshur County, Karnes voted in the November 2000 general election but would not vote again here until the May 2012 primary, county clerk Carol Smith said Monday.
The Lake County Supervisor of Elections Office said Karnes was registered to vote in Florida from Dec. 7, 2001 through May 26, 2017 and he voted in elections in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2010.
“I was obviously registered to vote there because I lived there full time, as I live here full time now,” Karnes said.
When asked if he still lived in Florida in 2010, Karnes said he didn’t think he did.
“No, no, I don’t think so,” Karnes said. “There’s been a couple of years where I lived half and half, a couple of weeks here and a couple of weeks there. It’s not something I’m obsessed over. It’s not an important point.”
Kersey said that should an elected official face a challenge to his or her eligibility to hold office, a judge would make the final determination.
“In the case where a candidate’s eligibility is challenged, a judge would likely be the ultimate decision maker,” Kersey wrote.
In a recent incident involving a local candidate’s eligibility, Carl ‘Robbie’ Martin found out he had inadvertently run for Upshur County Board of Education in the wrong district.
Martin was elected in 2014 and served a year before the error was discovered. He then voluntarily resigned and was re-elected in the proper district in 2016.