House committee votes on party lines to overturn voting domicile law

Monitor staff
Published: 2/12/2019 5:26:47 PM

For two years, Republican legislation to tighten requirements at the voting booth set off praise and condemnation. Now, Democrats are hoping to turn back the clock. 

On Tuesday, the House Election Law Committee voted to recommend two bills that would overturn those Republican reforms, which opponents say amount to voter suppression. 

One effort would overturn Senate Bill 3, which imposed stronger proof-of-domicile requirements for those registering to vote at the polls. The other would reverse House Bill 1264, which made voting an effective act of residency, and which opponents say could require motor vehicle registrations for college students who vote. 

Neither of the bills are fully in effect; SB 3 is tied up in a partial court injunction and HB 1264 doesn’t kick in until July. But Democrats have long argued that they impose undue burdens on minorities, poorer residents and college students. 

“That’s led to fears being at least reasonably presented to voters as to whether or not there was going to be penalties, costs, motor vehicle expenses when casting their vote when they were living there,” said Wayne Moynihan, a Dummer Democrat. 

House Republicans, meanwhile, attacked the moves as partisan politics. And they defended the law changes, which they said bring the state more in line with other states and would help ensure the integrity of the state’s election results.

“In a state where numerous elections have been decided by just a handful of votes, it is important to make sure that every ballot cast by an eligible voter is counted, and the domicile loophole is closed,” said House Republican Leader Dick Hinch in a statement shortly after the votes. 

Enacted in the first year of Gov. Chris Sununu’s term, Senate Bill 3 created a series of additional steps for those showing up to the polls to register to vote, including new documentation such as utility bills and landlord letters to prove they lived in that town, in addition to a fine and potential jail time for violators. 

But the bill was quickly challenged by the state Democratic Party and the League of Women Voters, who have contended that the threat of punishment under the bill would drive away those with less access to documents that prove domicile. In 2017, the Hillsborough Superior Court imposed a partial injunction that let the law move ahead but froze the penalties; that injunction has held up through the 2018 elections as the case wends its way through the courts. 

House Bill 1264, meanwhile, has no litigation stacked against it, but advocates on both sides expect a court challenge sometime after it takes effect in July. 

By now, arguments on both sides are worn-in, and Tuesday’s committee debate turned less on policy considerations than on partisan positioning. 

Rep. Timothy Lang, a Sanbornton Republican, argued that the reversal bills were ill-advised, cautioning the body to hold off on making a decision on the bills before the courts do. 

“We need to fix this, and I’m not so sure that partisan politics, where we have a definitive interest, is going to do that,” Lang said. “This case is sitting in court we could have a clear judicial determination on this, and be able to move forward, I hope in a bipartisan effort.” He advocated the reversal bills be retained in committee until the 2020 session. 

But Rep. Will Pearsons said the process had already become partisan, and that the changes were needed to turn back the clock.

“To say that now is the time we need to fix this, now is the time we need to come together in a bipartisan fashion, I think the horse has already left the stable here,” Pearson said. “(House Bill) 1264 and SB 3 weren’t solutions; they were wrenches in the cogs of democracy and the fix is repealing them.”

Times have changed for the Legislature – a reversal of power in 2018 has given Democrats majorities in the House and Senate, though not enough to overturn a gubernatorial veto on party lines. 

But even under new leadership, the Election Law Committee committee voted as it always had, on party lines. In a 12-8 vote, the reversal bills will head to the House floor with a recommended “ought to pass.”

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