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Senate hearing on voting law draws students to State House

By Dave Solomon
State House Bureau

April 10. 2018 10:22PM
Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the NH-ACLU, is surrounded by opponents of HB 1264, which they claim will discourage college students and other transient residents from voting. (Dave Solomon/Union Leader)

CONCORD — The latest skirmish in the ongoing battle over election law at the State House drew a large crowd of university students and their supporters to a Senate hearing Tuesday on a House-passed bill that would change the definition of domicile and residence.

Opponents of the bill, HB 1264, described it as a device to discourage student voting in the state’s college and university towns.

The bill’s sponsors maintain it is merely an attempt to clean up language in the state’s voting statutes to reflect recent court rulings and eliminate confusion.

Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, chairman of the Senate Election Committee, had to move the hearing to a larger room to accommodate the crowd, which spilled out into the lobby of the Legislative Office Building.

The bill standardizes the definition of “resident,” “inhabitant,” “residence,” and “residency” in state law.

Current law reads that residency is established when someone demonstrates “a current intent to designate a place as his or her principal place of physical presence for the indefinite future to the exclusion of all others.”

The change in HB 1264 eliminates the phrase “for the indefinite future,” which courts have struck down as too broad a standard to apply to a voting requirement. Removing that language from the definition of residency should enable a residency requirement for voting to pass court challenges, according to the bill’s sponsors.

Opponents of the bill argued that it would force students and other transient voters to declare New Hampshire residency, which sets in motion a 60-day legal requirement to obtain a New Hampshire motor vehicle registration and driver’s license.

Many transient voters, though living in New Hampshire at the time of an election, would be discouraged from voting by such requirements, according to opponents of HB 1264 like Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the NH-ACLU.

“This bill specifically targets people in New Hampshire who know they will be leaving at some time in the future; this includes hospital residents or college professors who know they will be leaving New Hampshire in three years time, or college students, who know they will be leaving after graduation. They have a constitutional right to vote in New Hampshire, where they live,” he said.

“These costs will obviously chill these voters’ decisions to vote where they live and are constitutionally eligible to vote.”

Bissonnette maintains the requirement to register your vehicle and obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license is in effect a poll tax on transient residents.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner called New Hampshire one of the friendliest voting states in the country, and said the bill, if signed into law, would do nothing to change that.

“We are the only state in the country where you do not have to be a resident to vote,” said Gardner. “We’ve gone through every single state to verify this.”

Birdsell accused the bill’s opponents of misrepresenting its intent.

“Democrats and out-of-state organizations have developed and are promoting an untrue narrative that is disenfranchising voters, specifically college students, in the Granite State,” she said. “Despite their claims, the bill heard today does not disenfranchise college students. Period.”

HB 1264 is similar to another House bill, HB 372, that passed the House last year, was amended by the Senate to include a lengthy preamble, and passed by the Senate in January. The content of the two bills is likely to be merged in some fashion for final action before the end of the legislative session in May.

The lengthy preamble added in HB 372 is designed to inform future judges attempting to interpret the law as to the Legislature’s intent in defining residency, and eliminating the four words “for the indefinite future.”

“In a court decision, the judge wrote that if you are going to have those words, it (the residency requirement) is unconstitutional, so this bill simply removes those four words,” said Gardner.

Will Silverstein-Belden, a UNH senior from Keene, said young people see the bills as an attempt to discourage them from voting.

“The state does not value youth; it’s clear,” he said. “We are not represented in government, and this bill sure does seem to incentivize leaving. Is that in the best interest of New Hampshire — to be encouraging young people vital to our economy to leave.”

Gov. Chris Sununu is recorded on videotape telling a young voter that he would never support legislation that suppresses the youth vote, but the question of whether the two bills now under consideration will have that effect is obviously subject to debate.

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