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State Senate to take up latest version of election reform bill

State House Bureau

December 27. 2017 9:28PM
Gov. Chris Sununu tells an activist he is opposed a bill that changes the definition of residency, and states that “A person must be a resident of New Hampshire to vote or hold office in New Hampshire.” (YouTube)

CONCORD — The latest attempt to reform New Hampshire election law faces its first big test on Wednesday, when the state Senate is scheduled to act on House Bill 372.

Supporters of the amended House bill say it will help ensure that only New Hampshire residents vote in Granite State elections.

But others, including Gov. Chris Sununu, are concerned about what the bill would actually accomplish if it becomes law. Sununu stands by his previously stated warning about “unintended consequences” of the bill, while its original sponsor, Rep. David Bates, R-Windham, says GOP senators have taken the measure in a direction he never intended.

Last year, the Legislature passed and Sununu signed into law Senate Bill 3, which established new requirements for claiming a New Hampshire domicile for voting purposes. That law is now being challenged in court by the League of Women Voters and the N.H. Democratic Party.

SB 3 combined elements of many election bills that were floated in 2017, but left in place different definitions of residency and domicile.

HB 372 is designed to end confusion over the two terms by making them synonymous, according to Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, the chief sponsor of SB 3 and the leading advocate for the amended version of HB 372.

“It’s going to equate domicile with residence, much as it is in Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont,” she said of HB 372. “To be eligible to vote, you must have established and maintained a voting residence in the municipality.”

Bates originally filed HB 372 as a simple, 11-line bill to define residency in a way that could more likely survive court challenges. A separate bill, HB 404, would have established a residency requirement for voting, based on the more legally sound definition.

But HB 404 died while HB 372 was retained in the Senate and amended.

The Senate Election Committee in a 3-2 party line vote on Nov. 30 attached a lengthy purpose statement to HB 372, stating that “A person must be a resident of New Hampshire to vote or hold office in New Hampshire.”

“I’m not crazy about the amendment,” Bates said. “You have a very broad purpose statement that doesn’t seem to tie directly to the underlying bill.”

If the law takes effect as Birdsell and others envision it, college students or other transients with a New Hampshire address would be allowed to vote, but would have to declare residency. That would require them to obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license and register their vehicle here within 60 days.

“In our view, this is a post-election poll tax,” says Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire. “It’s very concerning and abundantly clear that the intent is to impose motor vehicle fee obligations on individuals who vote.”

While neighboring New England states have established a residency requirement for voting, it is not always linked to compliance with motor vehicle registration and driver’s license requirements.

In Maine, Republican Gov. Paul LePage issued a statement before the November 2016 election, warning college students that they would have to obtain a Maine driver’s license and register their vehicles in Maine if they decided to vote there.

But that was immediately contradicted by Democratic Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, whose office reminded college students and others in Maine that “your right to vote is not constrained by other obligations involved in establishing residency in Maine.”

“Every American citizen has the right to vote. Establishing residency for the purpose of voting carries with it no association to paying fees or taxes; you don’t pay for a right,” wrote Dunlap. “Residency obligations in Maine, such as vehicle registration and driver’s licensure, are administered separately from the elections process.”

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, also a Democrat, says he essentially agrees with Dunlap, but points out that the Maine Secretary of State is also in charge of the Division of Motor Vehicles, which in New Hampshire is under the Department of Safety.

Sununu said there are some aspects of the bill he supports, but he has asked the sponsors to make sure the measure does not disenfranchise students or any other faction.

“We’ve asked them to go back and really take a look at not just what they’re trying to achieve, but what the unintended consequences might be,” he said. “If it comes to a bill that is clearly suppressing a vote or a specific constituency, in terms of voting, then obviously that’s nothing I’m going to be able to support.”

Crime, law and justice Elections State Government

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