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No plan to enforce residency requirement for voting, even if it passes Legislature

State House Bureau

April 30. 2018 8:01PM
A Bedford voter emerges from the voting booth at Bedford High School in this 2013 photo. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER FILE)

CONCORD — As the state draws closer to enacting a residency requirement for voting, one question remains unanswered: How would the obligation to obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license and vehicle registration after voting be enforced? No one seems to know.

The Secretary of State’s office says “check with the Division of Motor Vehicles,” while the DMV says, not our problem.

More precisely, here’s what David Scanlan, the deputy secretary of state for elections, had to say when asked how the state would verify that non-residents followed the law after declaring themselves as New Hampshire residents for the purpose of voting.

“Your question relative to how the state would enforce residency requirements under motor vehicle laws would be best asked of the Department of Safety, Division of Motor Vehicles,” said Scanlan. “There is no requirement in election laws to report the names of new voters to the DMV. I am not aware of any statute that requires cross-enforcement of motor vehicle and election laws.”

According to Department of Safety spokesman Michael Todd, passage of new laws defining residency will have “no impact on DMV operations.”

Two bills that say essentially the same thing are now in front of lawmakers. HB 372 and HB 1264 define residency and tie it to voting in a way that backers of the bills hope will survive the inevitable court challenges.

The Senate Election Law Committee last week voted along party lines to recommend passage of HB 1264, which is on the agenda for a Senate vote on Wednesday. HB 372 has already passed the House and Senate, although with some differences in wording that will have to be resolved between the two chambers.

As both bills work their way through the legislature, supporters have emphasized the need to ensure that only state residents vote in New Hampshire elections.

Once they’ve declared residency, new voters/residents would have 60 days, by law, to obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license (if they drive) and register their car here (if they own one).

Neighboring states

Backers of the bills frequently point to the fact that neighboring Maine and Vermont have similar residency requirements, but what is rarely said is that neither of those states link those requirements to motor vehicle law enforcement.

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap told the Bangor Daily news on March 8 that failure to comply with motor vehicle statutes after voting is not a crime in Maine.

As in New Hampshire, there is no cross-enforcement of election and motor vehicle law.

Dunlap was responding to a letter from Lewiston’s Republican Mayor Shane Bouchard to Bates College students, warning that registering to vote amounts to a declaration of Maine residency and carries additional legal obligations, such as getting a Maine driver’s license and registering cars in the state.

Dunlap had to issue similar statements in the past, when 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.

Vermont, similarly, does not tie motor vehicle residency fees to the act of voting, and even has an explicit carve-out for transient voters like college students, which states, “persons who live in the state for a particular purpose involving a defined period of time, including students, migrant workers employed in seasonal occupations, and persons employed under a contract with a fixed term, are not residents for purposes of (motor vehicle law) only.”

Deciding not to vote

Opponents of the new residency definition are not comforted by the fact that New Hampshire appears to have no way to enforce the motor vehicle requirements after voting takes place, should one of the bills become law.

They point out that most people follow the law, whether they anticipate enforcement or not.

“The enforcement is beside the point, given the testimony heard on HB 1264 about the effects such a law has on the willingness of voters to participate in our democratic process,” said Liz Wester with the N.H. Campaign for Voting Rights.

“Town clerks testified about seeing students decide not to register to vote after seeing language similar to the requirements that would be in effect under HB 1264 or HB 372,” she said.

Under current motor vehicle law, a driver who claims to be a New Hampshire resident, but displays an out-of-state license and registration when stopped by police, has his or her name entered into an electronic ticketing system with a 60-day clock ticking down.

The legislature could decide to link its motor vehicle and election laws, as Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, suggested at an April 10 hearing on HB 1264, when she asked Scanlan, “Why shouldn’t we also make a change to the motor vehicle statute?”

“If it is the policy of the legislature to change the motor vehicle laws or any other, that is perfectly reasonable,” he replied.

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