N.H. Senate approves second voter residency bill of session; Sununu support uncertain

  • Syd Barnes leaves a voting booth with his 16-year-old daughter, Katie, at Weare Middle School during Tuesday's snowstorm on town voting day, Mar. 13, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

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    Gov. Chris Sununu engages with opponents of House Bill 1264, which would merge the definitions of "domicile" and "residence" for voting purposes, May 2, 2018. Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt

Monitor staff
Published: 5/2/2018 9:40:05 PM

The New Hampshire Senate approved the second bill of the session intended to equate voting in the state with residency, acting on party-lines despite lingering uncertainty over the governor’s support.

House Bill 1264, which passed, 14-10, is near-exact replica of an earlier bill, House Bill 372, dealing with the definition of residency. Both bills would merge the meaning of the words “domiciled” person and “resident” for the purposes of election law, effectively turning those who vote into de facto residents.

Republican supporters have said that the bills would bring New Hampshire in line with all other states, which require residency in order to vote. Democrats have fiercely opposed the move, saying it would target college students who for years have been regarded “domiciled” in New Hampshire and allowed to vote here, but are not fully residents. Merging the definitions could require college students and other temporary workers to register their vehicles in the state after voting, a change critics have labeled a “poll tax.”

Supporters counter that those responsibilities should follow anyone who declares New Hampshire their home, regardless of their voting habits.

But if Wednesday’s vote was predictable – a January vote on HB 372 also passed the Senate along party lines – the governor’s position is not. In December, a national voting rights advocacy group, America Votes, published an undercover video of Sununu telling a young activist that he “hated” the bill and would veto it. Since then, he has not taken a public position, saying he will review the language when it reaches his desk. But last month, a spokesman confirmed that the position articulated in the video “has not changed,” adding that the governor “has serious concerns” about the bills and “does not support either bill in their current form.”

On Wednesday, the spokesman, Ben Vihstadt, confirmed that the governor’s position remains the same.

Now, two nearly identical bills are poised to move forward. The first, HB 372, is already heading to a committee of conference, meant to negotiate agreement between the chambers. HB 1264 now moves back to the House, which could vote to concur, kill it or send it to another conference committee.

On the Senate floor, debate hewed to familiar arguments.

Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, who lives in and represents the site of Dartmouth College, said the effects of the bill could be “extraordinarily chilling,” adding the prospect of car registration and driver’s license fees “could cause people to hesitate and to pause and to not execute their constitutional right.”

But Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, rejected the argument, saying that those students who didn’t want to be Granite State residents could vote absentee in their home states, and she pointed to the other states that already require that.

“This bill aligns us with, frankly, 49 other states in the country,” she said.

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

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