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State Senate OK's residency definition for voting; Sununu remains opposed

State House Bureau

January 03. 2018 2:34PM
President Barack Obama works the crowd at the University of New Hampshire in 2016 seeking votes for failed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

CONCORD – The state Senate in a 14-9 party-line vote on Wednesday passed HB 372, establishing a new definition of residency that the bill’s supporters hope will pass legal muster and set the stage for enforcement of the bill’s purpose statement: “A person must be a resident of New Hampshire to vote or hold office in New Hampshire.”

The bill was substantially changed from the version that passed the House last year, and will have to go back to the House as amended by the Senate. The House version contained only the change in definition. The purpose statement was added by the Senate.

If the House agrees with the Senate changes, the bill heads to Gov. Chris Sununu, who has expressed concern about the potential for voter suppression.

“My position has not changed,” Sununu said Wednesday. “I remain opposed to HB 372 as it is currently written.”

The current definition of residency in state law contains the phrase “for the indefinite future,” which the state Supreme Court ruled in 2015 was an unacceptable burden for voting purposes. HB 372 strikes that phrase from the definition in the hope of surviving the inevitable court challenges the bill will face if it is signed into law.

“The resources of our Attorney General are already going to defend SB 3,” said Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, referring to legal challenges to an election reform law passed last year. “Now they’ll go to defend this bill, too, if it is passed and signed into law.”

Democrats argued that the bill has the potential to discourage college students and other transient residents from voting, and is not necessary since fraudulent voting has not been identified as a real problem in the state.

While acknowledging that voter fraud is not widespread in New Hampshire, Democratic Secretary of State Bill Gardner said he supports the bill because of polls that show many people are concerned that fraud is occurring.

Supporters of the measure, like Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford, said the reforms are necessary to restore trust in the election process. “We’re trying to fix trust; we’re trying to fix accuracy; we’re trying to fix the belief that your vote counts,” he said.

Sanborn alluded to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling, saying, “All we are trying to do is respond to a state Supreme Court that didn’t like four words – for the indefinite future.”

Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, warned that the bill changes the definition of residency in all aspects of state law, which could have wide-ranging and unintended consequences.

“What this amendment seeks to do is amend the statutory definition, which affects everything … all laws that use the word resident or domicile,” she said.

Hundreds of students from colleges across New Hampshire signed an open letter delivered to Sununu on Monday, urging him to veto HB372 if it get to his desk.

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Thank you, Sununu