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Democrats sue over NH election reform

State House Bureau

August 23. 2017 10:53AM
Voters cast ballots at Gilbert H. Hood Middle School in Derry. (Union Leader file photo)

CONCORD — The state Democratic Party and the League of Women Voters have filed separate lawsuits in Hillsborough County Superior Court to block the election reform law that was passed this spring by a Republican legislative majority and signed into law by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.

(Click here to see a related editorial.)

The 62-page complaint filed by Concord attorney William Christie on behalf of the Democrats identifies NHDP Chairman Ray Buckley as the plaintiff, with Secretary of State Bill Gardner and Attorney General Gordon MacDonald named as defendants.

Christie argues that the law, known as Senate Bill 3, violates the state and federal constitutions by unlawfully burdening the fundamental right to vote and denying certain citizens equal protection under the law. He asks the court to impose a preliminary injunction against implementing the law, and to eventually issue an order declaring it unconstitutional.

The law's supporters described the lawsuit as politically motivated and unlikely to succeed. "This is nothing more than political theatrics," said Sununu. "We are confident the law will be upheld."

SB 3 was drafted and redrafted during the months it worked its way through the Legislature in anticipation of just such a lawsuit, according to its primary sponsor, state Sen. Regina Birdsell R-Hampstead, chair of the Senate Election Law and Internal Affairs Committee.

"We were careful to craft the language in SB 3 to ensure it is constitutional," she said. "We look forward to allowing this process to play out in the New Hampshire court system."

Among its many provisions, SB 3 requires that individuals registering to vote provide proof of intent to be domiciled in the state, and in some cases complete a lengthy affidavit. Individuals attempting to register within 30 days of an election face additional requirements.

"These burdens fall disproportionately on young, low-income and minority groups who are more likely to be transient or register closer to Election Day, creating arbitrary and differential treatment of eligible New Hampshire voters," according to the lawsuit. "These undue burdens serve as deterrents for voters and make it more difficult for election officials to efficiently register voters."

Public perception

State Democratic Party Chairman Buckley said the law is "creating a solution to a problem they have no evidence exists."

"This is the latest in a long line of voter suppression efforts the Republican Party has engaged in around the country," he said. "Unfortunately, the myth of voter fraud has been spread by Republican leaders at every level, from President Trump to Gov. Sununu and within the New Hampshire Legislature, as a false pretext for restricting access to voting."

In November, Sununu claimed that Massachusetts residents were being bused into New Hampshire to commit voter fraud. Gardner denies that voting fraud is widespread in the state, but said the new law is needed to reverse a public perception to the contrary.

Backers of the new law say it does nothing more than require people who plan to vote in New Hampshire to prove that they live here.

According to the lawsuit, SB3 assumes people who recently moved to New Hampshire are not domiciled here, imposes difficult documentation requirements and creates a confusing domicile verification process, especially for those trying to register on Election Day.

The lawsuit points out that voters who registered on Election Day last November made up 11 percent of the total votes cast: "At the time the General Court enacted SB 3, it was aware that many of these same registrants are young, low-income and racial minorities and that same-day registration has a positive effect on the voter turnout of these groups."

Promise to defend

Republican Party Chair Jeanie Forrester said the new law will "ensure the integrity of our ballot box."

"The frivolous lawsuit put forth by the New Hampshire Democrat Party is just politics as usual," she said. "After losing the electoral battle and legislative battle, they are now resorting to a legal challenge."

Attorney General MacDonald announced late on Wednesday that the Department of Justice has been served with a complaint by the League of Women Voters as well.

"The New Hampshire Department of Justice has received two separate complaints filed in Hillsborough County Superior Court, challenging the constitutionality of Senate Bill 3," he said. "Senate Bill 3, like any statute, is presumed to be constitutional. The Department of Justice will defend it vigorously and we are confident it will be sustained."

No one from the League of Women Voters was available to discuss the lawsuit filed by that organization.

Editor's note: The headline of this article has been changed to more accurately reflect the story. 

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