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State Supreme Court hears arguments on law linking voter registration to motor vehicle rules

Last modified: 4/23/2015 12:22:36 AM
The New Hampshire Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in a case challenging language that would tie voter registration to motor vehicle laws.

A law passed in 2012 sought to amend the state’s voter registration forms that required those registering to vote to also affirm, among other things, that: “In declaring New Hampshire as my domicile, I am subject to the laws of the state of New Hampshire which apply to all residents, including laws requiring a driver to register a motor vehicle and apply for a New Hampshire’s driver’s license within 60 days of becoming a resident.”

Originally brought against the state by the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, the case centers on the question of whether such language is overly confusing and potentially unconstitutional. The lawyers challenging the state have argued that this language could amount to a “poll tax” in the form of fees associated with driver’s licenses and motor vehicle registration, and that it would deter otherwise eligible voters from voting.

On the opposite side, the state’s lawyers have argued that the language doesn’t impose burdensome restrictions. Assistant Attorney General Stephen Labonte, speaking at yesterday’s hearing, argued that the language as a whole is not inaccurate and would not deter someone from exercising their right to vote.

“The language subject to review – when read in its entirety, its entirety – is legally accurate,” Labonte said at the start of yesterday’s hearing.

Chief Justice Linda Dalianis soon interjected to clarify that the state’s definitions of “domiciliary and residence are different.” Labonte acknowledged that the state does have distinct definitions for each status.

“And they remain unresolved by what you’re proposing here,” Dalianis responded. “So how can we reconcile that?”

The question of how to do that was not immediately resolved, as the attorney and the justices moved on to examining other questions. Later, the chief justice questioned Labonte on whether someone would have to also be a resident to register to vote.

“The statute is not substantive. It’s only information. What it’s doing is advising those people who are domiciliaries . . .” Labonte said, before the chief justice interrupted with a question.

“That they also need to be residents?”

“I would suggest only that they have to get a driver’s license and register their vehicles within 60 days of becoming a resident,” Labonte said. “That’s what ties this all together.”

“But it doesn’t tell them that they don’t have to become a resident right now,” Dalianis said. “It suggests that if you’re not a resident, we’re not going to let you vote.”

“I believe it suggests that within 60 days of becoming a resident you have to obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license,” Labonte offered.

Dalianis continued: “Well, when does that happen? Does that happen on voting day? Do you become a resident on voting day?”

“Some people might be residents on voting day who are registering to vote for the first time,” Labonte said, “but it certainly doesn’t mean just because you’re registering – and again that’s not in dispute here – just because you’re registering you’re becoming a resident.”

Also during the hearing, Senior Associate Justice Gary Hicks inquired about the extra steps people might have to take to fully understand their eligibility under the law. Labonte pointed out that both the attorney general and the secretary of state’s offices can offer such help.

“Why should they have to do that,” Hicks asked, “if voting is to be free in New Hampshire and available to anyone over 18, any inhabitant over 18?”

The two went back and forth for a moment on this item, with Labonte noting that the need for such additional clarification is not uncommon.

“Well, I think we all have a responsibility to, if we’re confused by any kind of language – whether it’s a statute, that could be said for most any statute out there that may confuse a layperson,” Labonte said, “and speaking as a lawyer there are many times I have to read a statute two or three times before I can get an understanding, and even more, where the statute is going.”

Later, Wayne Christie – a lawyer with Shaheen and Gordon, which is working with the NHCLU on the case – argued that the intent behind the original legislation was to impose residency requirements on the right to vote in New Hampshire.

On the issue of whether the language would subject voters to fees, Hicks questioned Christie: “Why isn’t the state’s interest in ensuring the payment of all of the applicable fees and taxes enough to satisfy whatever scrutiny we want to apply here?”

Christie referred to other legal opinions addressing this. Again, he drew a distinction between what it means to be “domicile” and what it means to be a “resident” – each carries different requirements when it comes to applicable fees and taxes. If the form suggests that someone who is domiciled would have to pay fees that are typically only for residents, he argued, that’s an issue.

The justices did not say when they will issue a decision on the case. The state House of Representatives, earlier this year, asked the court to weigh in on the constitutionality of a bill that would link motor vehicle laws to voter registration, but the court declined to do so – in part because it was already on track to weigh a similar case.

State lawmakers are in the process of deliberating several other proposed changes to voter identification and eligibility laws this session.

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)


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