Federal judge weighs challenge to NH voting law

A federal judge is weighing whether to block a new election law as applying for the first-in-the-nation primary in February.  Shown here, Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan testified last winter against a bill to replace the law now in dispute (HB 1264) that would inform those who vote here they have to comply with driver's license and auto registration fee laws as all residents do.

CONCORD — Whether registering to vote triggers a requirement to obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license is now in the hands of a federal judge.

Judge Joseph Laplante took under advisement a bid by the American Civil Liberties Union and state Democratic Party to block enforcing a law linking residency to voting in the first-in-the-nation primary in February.

During a U.S. District Court hearing lasting more than four hours, Laplante heard from three witnesses and took oral arguments from both sides over the challenge to a 2018 law (HB 1264) that sets in motion a driver license requirement for any person who votes and then intends to stay in the state.

The lawsuit maintains the offices of Secretary of State Bill Gardner and Attorney General Gordon MacDonald have failed to clearly state the implications of this new law on driver licensing.

Hanover Town Clerk Elizabeth McClain testified she made numerous attempts to get Gardner to answer her questions about the new law because more than two dozen Dartmouth College students raised questions with her office.

“I have not been given what I consider to be a satisfactory answer,” she said.

McClain said that prior to the 2012 election there were similar questions about an election law that created a new voter registration form with the warning that signing it could trigger licensing requirements.

“Again it was going to bring back the specter of whether registering to vote would require getting a driver’s license,” McClain testified.

A superior court judge blocked the state from ever using those new voter registration forms.

She also pointed out that since 2016, the state has been putting the images of out-of-state driver licenses from voters into the so-called Election Net system, which is the intranet portal for all election officials to share information.

“It is clear driver’s licenses have some footprints in the Election Net system,” McClain said.

State prosecutors do not argue the college students need to get driving licenses once they vote, but they maintain this new law didn’t expressly change that.

“Under motor vehicle law, college students are required to have a New Hampshire driver’s license if they have and keep a car in the state for six months,” lawyers for the Attorney General’s office stated in a legal brief.

Indeed over the past six months, New Hampshire State Police reported accepting seven pleas by mail and issuing 20 warnings to motorists who should have obtained a New Hampshire driver’s license.

Mary Suskie of Little Rock, Ark., said she has started attending the UNH School of Law and registered to vote in Concord last month.

She only learned after registering that doing so could trigger a requirement to get a driver’s license.

Suskie said she was concerned about violating the residency law and the impact it could have on her application to the New Hampshire Bar upon graduation from law school.

“I was worried I would have to change my license or face repercussions,” she said.

“I wanted to vote because I think it’s important to be connected to where you are living.”

{span}Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan{/span} said the only significant complaints his office has received have come from election officials in the college towns of Hanover and Durham.

“My sense is there is little confusion regarding local election officials in understanding the statute,” Scanlan said

Democratic Party lawyers pointed out that until a week ago, the Secretary of State’s website contained the advisory that “resident and domicile have different definitions” when — for voting purposes — they do not under the new law.

“Do you think that would be confusing to people?” asked Democratic Party lawyer William Christie.

Scanlan answered, “Perhaps.”

Senior Assistant Attorney General Samuel Garland said the question about motor vehicle laws and college students doesn’t have one correct response.

For example, a college student driving a parent’s car at school doesn’t have to register it here at any point.

And a student taking college courses who is leaving the state soon after the presidential primary doesn’t need to get a driver’s license, the prosecutor said.

“There is not a clear answer to the question,” Garland said.

Judge Laplante asked if that didn’t support the argument that the law is confusing.

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