Judge hears arguments challenging Anchorage Democrat’s legislative eligibility

a screenshot of four images, of people in court and a judge
This screenshot from the website of the Alaska Court System shows Representative-elect Jennie Armstrong testifying Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022, during an evidentiary hearing. Armstrong is defending against a lawsuit that alleges she is ineligible to serve in the Alaska Legislature. (Screenshot)

In an Anchorage courtroom on Thursday, Democratic Representative-elect Jennie Armstrong and her husband described a romantic trip to Chena Hot Springs and a tarot reading in May 2019 that convinced her to stay in Alaska.

Facing a lawsuit that alleges she failed to live in Alaska long enough before running – and winning – an Anchorage state House seat, Armstrong and husband Ben Kellie testified about their courtship and provided text messages and other documents to show she moved to Anchorage in time to legally run for office in this year’s election.

If Armstrong loses the case, she could be disqualified from office despite winning the election. That would result in someone else filling the seat.

State law requires a legislative candidate to live in Alaska for three years before registering to run for office, and in October, the website the Alaska Landmine noted social media posts and fishing license applications that appeared to show Armstrong had moved to the state in June 2019, after the relevant deadline for Alaska’s 2022 election.

Liz Vazquez, who lost to Armstrong by 10 percentage points in the election, sued the Alaska Division of Elections to challenge Armstrong’s eligibility. Armstrong intervened in the case and Judge Herman Walker held an evidentiary hearing Thursday, listening to witness testimony from the bench.

During that testimony, Armstrong described how she accepted Kellie’s invitation to come to Alaska in May on a road trip and decided during that trip to stay in the state and move in with him.

At the time, Armstrong’s home state of residence was Louisiana, and she left Alaska to travel to other destinations and Louisiana, returning to Alaska in June.

Under prior case law, political residency is determined by the withdrawal from one state and the decision to reside in another.

Attorneys for Vazquez contend that didn’t happen in Armstrong’s case until June. They cite an Instagram post from mid-June in which she said she moved to Alaska “last weekend,” a timeframe that puts the move in June.

They also cite fishing license applications from 2019, 2020 and 2021 in which Armstrong lists her residency as beginning in June.

On the stand, Armstrong said those applications listed June “out of an abundance of caution” and followed a conversation with Kellie in which he said it was better safe than sorry to list a later date.

She said she “just rounded differently” on the licenses than she did her official candidacy form, which lists her Alaska residency as beginning in May.

Her defense team introduced contemporary text messages and additional social media posts in which Armstrong said she moved to Alaska in May.

In written arguments, they said that intent is the key factor when establishing residency, and that the Alaska Division of Elections acted correctly when it accepted Armstrong’s candidacy.

No one challenged Armstrong’s application during a 10-day challenge period in May, and an elections official testified Thursday that no one at the division attempted to verify the information on that application.

Vazquez has asked that Armstrong’s election be tossed out and Vazquez be declared the victor. Armstrong’s attorneys have said that would be an extraordinary action and if Walker rules in favor of Vazquez, he should either call a new election or allow the governor to appoint a replacement, consistent with the procedures used in case of a legislative vacancy.

Walker said he is traveling out of the country for the Christmas holiday and will issue a decision in writing, likely next week.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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