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Amendment would raise bar for voting eligibility in New Hampshire



Monitor staff
Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A late amendment to a bill that would limit voting to New Hampshire residents passed a Senate committee Tuesday, setting the stage for a new political battle in the Legislature next session over voting requirements.

The proposed change would require residency in the state, setting a higher bar for eligibility than present election law, which requires only that voters be “domiciled.” Democrats were quick to condemn the move, calling it an attempt to suppress voting that would effectively target college students.

Under current law, being domiciled means physically occupying a space in the state “more than any other place.” Residency carries stronger burdens of proof, such as utility bills or rental, and one of the consequences of declaring residency is that new residents must register their cars in New Hampshire and get state-issued driver’s licenses.

The amendment, added to House Bill 372, specified that “a person must be a resident of New Hampshire to vote or hold office in New Hampshire.” Introduced by Sens. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, and James Gray, R-Rochester, the proposal came during an executive session of the Senate Election Law and Internal Affairs Committee.

HB 372 passed the House, 188-163, last session – the original bill was meant to cut out portions of the state’s definition of residency to allow it to apply to voting while avoiding potential constitutional challenges. Tuesday’s amendment was the first language change that would explicitly require residency for voting.

The measure, which passed along party lines, 3-2, set off instant political reaction.

Sponsors of the bill said that it was intended to ensure that people have a strong connection to the place in which they vote, as well as to clarify language that was posing legal problems.

By bringing the meaning of “residency” to be more in line with “domicile” and adding language on interpretation, the bill would iron out inconsistencies in the terms that have courted legal challenge, Gray said in an interview.

But Democrats and voting rights advocates said the measure would create a strong voting deterrent among college students, who often carry out-of-state licenses.

“It’s an attempt to suppress the vote and make it harder for people to participate in our democracy,” said Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield, who voted against the bill. “We’re talking about college students, paying lots of money to be here. If we’re lucky, we can convince them to stay here because we want their talent.”

Gilles Bisonnette, legal director at the New Hampshire American Civil Liberties Union, called the measure a “poll tax,” citing the additional car registration and driver’s license fees that accompany a residency declaration.

Liz Wester, New Hampshire director for advocacy organization America Votes, said the bill as written would have “more far-reaching consequences” than Senate Bill 3, which passed last session and imposed additional requirements on voters to prove domicile.

Gray said the criticism is misplaced. A person should choose to vote in the state in which they reside; requirements to register a car or obtain a driver’s license are simply byproducts of residing, he said. Those who live in New Hampshire but are more closely attached to another state should vote in that other state by absentee ballot, he added.

“I do want you to have the right to vote in New Hampshire,” he said. “If you’re a resident, if this is the place you choose to live abandoning all others, I want you to vote in New Hampshire. But if that place you choose to interact with is in Massachusetts, in Vermont, in Maine, in Kalamazoo, New Mexico, then I want you vote there.”

Two other committee members who voted for the bill – Birdsell and Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford – were not immediately available for comment.

It is unclear whether the amended bill will have traction within the Senate. A similar bill – House Bill 1356 – passed the House in 2016 but was tabled in the Senate.

Looming over the progress of HB 372 is SB 3, which requires voters submit documentary proof that they are domiciled, either at the polls or within a month after the election. That bill has been stayed pending a legal challenge filed in part by the state Democratic Party, which says the bill creates unlawful burdens on the right to vote. A trial has been set in Hillsborough Superior Court in August 2018.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)