Secretary of State Bill Gardner

Secretary of State Bill Gardner testifies before the House Election Law Committee as it considers changes to the law defining residency for purposes of voting.

CONCORD — A Senate-passed bill that would make it easier for out-of-state college students to vote was heard before the House Election Law Committee on Tuesday, as a deeply partisan battle over who gets to cast a ballot continues to rage at the State House.

A bill passed by the Republican-led legislature in 2018 and signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu, HB 1264, discourages students in the state’s college towns from voting, according to critics, by requiring them to obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license and motor vehicle registration within 60 days of casting a ballot.

The new law doesn’t take effect until July 1, but it’s already being challenged in court by the ACLU. The lawsuit was filed in February on behalf of two Dartmouth College students who claim the new law violates their constitutional rights and represents a 21st-century “poll tax.”

Meanwhile, Democrats who now hold a majority in both House and Senate have filed bills to modify or repeal the new law.

In the House, Democrats passed a bill to repeal HB 1264 outright, while the Senate passed a bill that would create a carve-out from the motor vehicle requirements for students and other transient residents who claim New Hampshire as their domicile for purposes of voting.

Both bills passed entirely along party lines, without a single Republican vote in either House or Senate.

The House held its hearing on the Senate bill (SB 67) on Tuesday, with Secretary of State Bill Gardner appearing as the star witness.

Although the Secretary of State’s office was listed as neutral on the bill, it was clear from his testimony that Gardner is comfortable with HB 1264 as it stands.

He told House lawmakers it was their prerogative to exempt student voters from the DMV requirements, but he thinks “everyone should be treated equally.”

“No matter how rich you are, or smart you are, when you are in that line at the polling place, you are the same as everyone. When you start fracturing that with exceptions, that is the path that leads to where the country was in the 1960s,” said Gardner, alluding to literacy tests and other devices used to exclude voters in the past.

If the change has to be made, he said, it should be made in motor vehicle statutes, not in the definition of residency that applies to all state laws.

Gilles Bissonnette, ACLU-NH legal director, testified that SB 67 addresses many of the concerns that prompted the lawsuit on behalf of college students “by carving out voters who are domiciled in New Hampshire, but who do not have an indefinite intention to remain in New Hampshire, from HB 1264’s motor vehicle fee obligations so as to not chill their right to vote.”

Many states specify that college students and similar voters who live in the state temporarily are not obligated to pay motor vehicle residency fees, even if they vote in the state, according to Bissonnette, who cited laws in Vermont, Arizona, Utah and West Virginia.

“Students who live there, but who moved from other states, are explicitly exempted from a requirement to register their vehicles,” he said. “Most states have either no explicit connection between voting and motor vehicle fees, or else treat voter registration as only one non-conclusive factor in determining motor vehicle residency.”

Examples of those states include Georgia, Idaho, Oregon and South Carolina. In Maine, there are no criminal penalties if a voter fails to obtain a Maine driver’s license or car registration after they register to vote in Maine, Bissonnette pointed out.

The Senate Election Committee is scheduled to hold its hearing on the House bill to repeal HB 1264 on Wednesday .