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Governor sounding more amenable to election law changes

State House Bureau

May 16. 2018 9:58PM

CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu now says that if the state Supreme Court decides a bill defining residency for purposes of voting is constitutional, he will sign it into law.

Sununu had previously suggested he would oppose the bill, HB 1264 and a related measure, HB 372.

The state Supreme Court will be asked to offer its opinion on the constitutionality of HB 1264, which has passed the House and Senate and is now awaiting the governor’s signature.

The request for the court’s opinion will officially come from the Governor and Executive Council, following a 3-2 party line vote of the council on Wednesday, with the two Democrats opposed.

“The constitutional issues are the biggest concerns most people have across the state, so if the Supreme Court were to come back and verify that it meets all the constitutional requirements, I think it would be hard not to sign it,” Sununu told reporters after the council vote.

When asked how he would proceed if the court declined to take up the request or offered an opinion that the law was unconstitutional, he was more cautious.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “It depends on how they decline it, what they say and how they say it. I wouldn’t want to project there. We have to see what they come back with.”

Sununu has for months expressed reservations about HB 1264 and a mirror bill, HB 372, which define residency and domicile and require any voter to declare New Hampshire as their place of residence. That means getting a state driver’s license and vehicle registration within 60 days.

Supporters say the bill will help ensure that only New Hampshire residents vote in state elections, while opponents say it will suppress the vote of college students and others living in the state on a temporary basis, but still entitled to vote here based on past court rulings.

Democratic Councilor Chris Pappas of Manchester called the request a bid by the governor to buy more time on the politically charged issue.

“To me this seems like a delaying tactic at the end of the legislative process as opposed to a question that should have been answered further up stream, as this bill was making its way through the House and Senate,” he said. “I am going to be voting against this resolution today because the answers should have been provided prior to this.”

Democratic Councilor Andru Volinsky of Concord said he was concerned about the precedent being set by the council involving itself in the veto process.

“I don’t believe that is within our authority,” he told the governor. “Even if you get lucky and the court accepts the referral and offers an opinion, it sets a dangerous precedent that involves the council in areas that it is structurally not intended to participate in. So for that reason, I will vote against the resolution.”

Republican councilors Russell Prescott of Kingston, Joe Kenney of Union and David Wheeler of Milford all voted in support of the resolution with little comment.

Sununu told a young political activist late last year that he would oppose any bill that suppresses the student vote, and that he “hated” the two bills in question.

On Wednesday, he struck a different tone. “When the Legislature began considering the two bills, my office expressed concern about their constitutionality throughout the entire process, and now that one of these bills is on its way to my desk, we have an obligation to ensure the integrity of the voting process and that every individual’s right to vote is protected,” he said.

“The constitution does allow for the governor and council to make a request of the Supreme Court on important questions of law. We use this provision very sparingly, but I can think of few issues more worthy of having the court weigh in on. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of making sure we follow a good process and get this right.”


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