CONCORD — A federal court judge refused the state Attorney General’s request to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire that challenges a new voter registration law, claiming it discriminates against out-of-state college students.
After a two-hour hearing on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Joseph LaPlante agreed the ACLU’s lawsuit should move forward, setting an Aug. 13 date for a conference.
The judge noted the deadline for a resolution is needed before the 2020 presidential election, hopefully before the Feb. 11, 2020 New Hampshire primary.
Proponents of the new law argue it is an effort to reduce voter fraud.
But attorney Suzanne Amy Spencer, representing the New Hampshire Democratic Party, which has joined the lawsuit, argued the Republicans were proponents of HB 1264 as a way to “intimidate student registration to vote and suppress their (student) impact on the next election.”
While noting this lawsuit isn’t a “strong challenge,” LaPlante agreed, “The clear motivation of the status is not motivated to regulate the rules of the road ... This was intended to impact our elections.”
He added, “What does this law really do except make some people discouraged from voting.”
The ACLU filed the lawsuit in February on behalf of two Dartmouth College students — Caroline Casey from Louisiana and Maggie Flaherty from California — who voted in the 2018 primaries and general elections in New Hampshire but maintained their driver’s licenses in their home states.
Under HB 1264, which went into effect on July 1, the distinction between “domicile” and “residency” for voting purposes is eliminated. Out-of-state college students who want to vote in New Hampshire are now subjected to residency requirements, such as having a New Hampshire driver’s license and car registration.
The impact for many college students is they must relinquish their out-of-state driver’s licenses and register their vehicle in New Hampshire within 60 days of casting a ballot. This new voting law is tied to the state’s motor vehicle laws, which have the same 60-day license and registration requirement; failure to do so can result in a citation.
The ACLU argues that struggling college students that want to drive in New Hampshire and vote in New Hampshire face the financial burden of paying $50 for a new license plus the cost of registering a car.
“Young people are forced to chose whether they want to drive in New Hampshire (and give up their out-of-state license) or abstain from voting,” ACLU NH attorney Henry Klementowicz said.
LaPlante rejected the state’s motion to remove the New Hampshire Secretary of State from the lawsuit, saying the lawsuit is against the state and it doesn’t matter which government official is named.
Assistant Attorney General Samuel R.V. Garland argued that the plaintiff’s “either or” argument is false. An out-of-state student can vote as long as they don’t drive in Hampshire; the same rules apply to some senior citizens who have relinquished their driver’s licenses.
Arguing that the new voting law is designed to treat all voters equally, Assistant Attorney General Seth Zoracki argued that the new law “imposes only a minimal burden,” with only about 5,000 people affected.
Zoracki added that there is a minimal burden for some “very compelling reasons.”
But LaPlante said prior to the new law, residents just registered to vote.
“Registering to vote now exposes you to criminal prosecution in a way it didn’t before,” he said.