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Voter residency bill clears House; Sununu calls for constitutional review



Monitor staff
Thursday, May 10, 2018

A bill merging the definitions of “resident” and “domiciled” person for voting purposes is heading to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk after a House vote Thursday, but the governor wants to send it to the courts to review its legality.

In a 182-156 vote, the House voted to concur with the final version of House Bill 1264, sending the bill into the enrollment process and setting up a tough political ultimatum for Sununu. The bill, which would effectively make voting in New Hampshire a declaration of residency, has been praised by supporters as a means to clarify New Hampshire’s law and bring it into line with other states.

But critics have said that incorporating residency into the voting process could impose eventual car registration costs that could act as a “poll tax” and deter some from the polls. In a secretly recorded video released in December, Sununu appeared to share those concerns, telling a young activist that he “hated” the bill and raising worries that it could suppress the vote and be found unconstitutional in the courts.

Now, as the bill works its way through the final process to Sununu’s desk, the governor faces a decision. A spokesman for Sununu, Ben Vihstadt, said Thursday that the governor remains opposed to the bill and a bill that mirrors it, House Bill 372. But he stopped short of declaring an intention to veto the bill.

In the meantime, Sununu is seeking opinion from a different source: the judicial branch. The governor “believes that the bills should undergo a strict review by the New Hampshire Supreme Court in order to determine any potential unintended consequences,” Vihstadt said.

That could take time. The process for the body to review a bill could take anywhere from weeks to months to complete depending on the nature of the request, according to Tammy Jackson, a spokeswoman for the court. The matter would move through the same formal motions as a case, but certain aspects – such as oral argumentation – could be waived if deemed necessary, Jackson said.

Meanwhile, getting that request to the court in the first place is no simple task; Part II, article 74 of the state constitution requires a vote of approval by the Executive Council before it can proceed.

The governor’s request complicates an already-uncertain situation for the two bills. While HB 1264 is now heading to Legislative Services for final proofreading on its way to Sununu’s desk, HB 372, with near-identical language, is presently in limbo. The House voted to send it to a committee of conference to resolve language differences; the Senate has yet to agree to that request.

Sending both bills for Supreme Court review poses additional logistical challenges. HB 372 is working through a tight timeline; the committee of conference, if agreed to by the Senate, must sign off on its final language by May 17 – not enough time for the court to weigh in.

In order to get the justices’ opinion on HB 1264, meanwhile, the bill will need to be slow-walked on its way to the governor’s desk – likely through the summer. Either the Senate President or the House Speaker can delay signing off on the bill, but both would require coordination.

On Thursday, the final outcomes remained unclear. But one group, America Votes – an advocacy organization that has opposed both bills – had a different recommendation.

“We look forward to the governor keeping his promise and vetoing this legislation,” said Liz Wester, the group’s state director.

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