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 — The state director of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, a liberal voting rights group and a college town clerk are backing up the bid of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire to delay enforcing a law linking voting to residency until after the first-in-the-nation primary.

The ACLU-NH last week asked a federal judge for temporary relief to block enforcing HB 1264 as its lawyers maintain state election and motor vehicle officials have given out conflicting information about what it means.

“Simply put, either the law imposes these motor vehicle obligations on registrants or it does not. The public is entitled to know the state’s specific position as to what HB 1264 does. But because the State is apparently unable or unwilling to make its position clear to the public, certification of these questions may be critical for the public to gain clarity as to what HB 1264 textually does in practice,” wrote ACLU-NH lawyers Henry Klementowicz and Gilles Bissonnette.

The 2018 law that became effective last June states voting amounts to an intent to become a resident, which carries with it the requirement over time to obtain an in-state driver’s license and to pay New Hampshire auto registration fees.

In the past, out-of-state students and soldiers who living here temporarily could still vote and not have to comply with any state residency requirements.

The ACLU urged the federal judge to order a hearing in the state Supreme Court to clear up how the law would be enforced.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Anthony Galdieri said the state opposes this move. He pointed out the ACLU-NH is seeking this relief nine months into the case and not through the traditional legal channels such as a motion for a pre0liminary injunction.

“It is of paramount importance to the defendants, and the state generally, that the integrity and legitimacy of the New Hampshire presidential primary not be questioned based on temporary relief entered in this case, without any showing from the plaintiffs that they are entitled to such relief under the standard preliminary injunction test,” Galdieri said.

Gov. Chris Sununu, a two-term Republican, signed HB 1264 into law and vetoed a bill last spring from the Democratically-led Legislature to repeal it.

“New Hampshire now aligns with virtually every other state in requiring residency in order to vote,” Sununu said in his veto message of the bill (SB 67) opposing the law now in dispute.

“The Supreme Court ruled (HB 1264) is constitutional while affirming that New Hampshire had a compelling state interest in seeing the bill enacted.”

Warren’s state campaign director, Elizabeth Wester, submitted an affidavit to the court last Monday. In it she claims her campaign is not fully advising college students on the best course of action due to muddled advice from state officials.

“To date we have been unable to find any clarification from any state officials and are thus unable to adequately advise students on the ramifications of a decision to register to vote in NH,” Wester wrote. “The lack of clarity from the Secretary of State’s office has left a lot of confusion in college campuses across the state.”

The Warren campaign aide said out-of-state resident students can’t get a straight answer about the consequences after if they were to cast a ballot here

“Now it is extremely unclear what happens after they vote if they do not have an NH license and drive a car in anyway in New Hampshire. Students are dedicated to this state and sincerely wish to voice their opinion through their constitutional right to vote,” Wester said.

Kate Corriveau, state director of America Votes, made similar arguments in her own affidavit.

“When we have tried to explain what this actually means in practice, it is nearly impossible,” Corriveau wrote.

“When students have reached out to administrative officials for clarification, they become trapped in a bureaucratic loop of deferment, demonstrating that there is not just confusion on behalf of students, but also there is confusion on the implementation of this bill among town and city clerks, the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the Attorney General’s office.”

Wester, Warren’s campaign director, is a past state director of America Votes.

Hanover Town Clerk Elizabeth McClain told the court in her own statement about two dozen students have asked for advice and agreed with the ACLU that it’s not clear how to proceed.

“Based upon my professional experience, HB 1264 is causing significant confusion and ultimately could cause qualified potential voters to elect not to vote,” she claimed. “This confusion has been amplified by the lack of clarity from state agencies including the Secretary of State’s office.”

Warren’s campaign has plenty of company among the 2020 presidential field in its view about this GOP-pushed law.

Last April, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, authored a pledge for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to support doing away with what she called these “voter suppression laws.”

Within 48 hours, 16 candidates had signed it including all those polling in the top 10 of hopefuls here and in other key early states.

Monday, January 27, 2020
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