Newly passed voter residency law front and center in governor’s race

For the Monitor
Published: 7/14/2018 5:19:28 PM

The reaction came fast and furious.

Minutes after Republican Gov. Chris Sununu signed a controversial bill – House Bill 1264 – that imposes voter residency requirements in New Hampshire, his two Democratic challengers in this year’s election were quick to criticize him.

“By signing HB 1264, he has violated voters’ trust. He will be replaced in November,” predicted former state Sen. Molly Kelly of Harrisville.

Former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand, who’s making his second straight bid for governor, claimed that “in the end, Gov. Sununu was swayed more by the voices of extremism on the right than by the better angels of his conscience.”

The governor’s office announced that Sununu signed the bill, which was passed by the GOP dominated state Legislature, on Friday afternoon, with no fanfare. Sununu’s signature came one day after the state Supreme Court deemed the measure constitutional in a split ruling. His signature came a year after he signed into law another controversial voter bill – Senate Bill 3 – which added new requirements for people registering to vote within 30 days of an election.

The new measure targets mainly out-of-state students attending New Hampshire colleges and universities, but also military personnel and medical residents stationed in the state. In order to vote after the law kicks in next year, those out-of-staters would have to become New Hampshire residents or vote absentee in their native state.

Both laws had been vehemently opposed by Democrats, who label them voter suppression efforts. But many Republicans, who have argued that there’s voter fraud in New Hampshire, see the measures as restoring ballot integrity by ensuring that only residents can vote in Granite State elections.

Sununu’s signature came with less than four months to go until the November election, when he hopes voters will give him another two-year term in the corner office.

“I think it helps the re-election,” veteran Republican consultant David Carney said.

“I think the idea that you’re going to stand for clean elections is an extremely positive message. The people who are upset are the ones who would never vote for a Republican anyway. It shows he’s standing up for improved voter integrity,” added Carney, who served as chief of staff to former governor John H. Sununu, the current governor’s father.

But Democrats see the move as further energizing their base ahead of November’s elections, especially younger voters who would be affected by the new law.

“My hunch is HB 1264 will lead to more students voting in the mid-term election before the law takes effect in 2019,” said Jay Surdukowski, a Democratic activist and Concord attorney with Sulloway & Hollis.

“If the governor’s race or the congressional races were to be close come late October, it will be interesting to see if there is any impact from galvanized Democratic or independent student voters who feel – rightly or wrongly – that their rights may be infringed soon by the new law. As we saw in 2016, a small number of votes decided the top races in purple-state New Hampshire,” added Surdukowski, who served as legal counsel for now Sen. Maggie Hassan and Colin Van Ostern’s gubernatorial campaigns in 2014 and 2016, respectively.

The controversy over HB 1264 has been a big talker on the gubernatorial campaign trail for the past couple months, with both Kelly and Marchand urging Sununu not to sign the legislation.

Even Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon weighed in. Speaking at a New Hampshire Young Democrats event on Thursday, the potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said, “If he (Sununu) signs that thing, let’s take him out and make sure that a Democrat gets into that governor’s seat.”

But a leading New Hampshire-based political scientist said, “as for Sununu and whether this helps or hurts him – it’s a little from column A and a little from column B.”

“The idea that laws like this are necessary to protect elections has become an article of faith among some Republicans, despite the absence of any sort of evidence to support that conclusion. So Republican voters may look at this and see Gov. Sununu as moving a Republican priority forward,” Saint Anselm College professor of politics Christopher Galdieri said.

“On the other hand, we’ve seen a lot of energy and enthusiasm on the Democratic side since 2017 and signing this bill, especially after the governor’s initial statement that he opposed the bill and a long subsequent period of indecision, is going to give Democrats one more reason to turn out this fall,” he said.

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