New N.H. voting law could trigger motor vehicle registration requirements

Monitor staff
Published: 7/15/2019 4:35:08 PM

The next time voters head to the polls in New Hampshire, they’ll need to take a few extra steps if they’re not yet residents of the state.

A new law that effectively requires voters obtain a New Hampshire ID went into effect July 1. The bill itself – House Bill 1264 – broadens the definition of “resident” by eliminating four words: “for the indefinite future.”

This change means anyone who registers to vote in the state is declaring residency here. That voter registration could then trigger motor vehicle registration laws that require any new residents to obtain a New Hampshire license within 60 days or face a penalty.

The bill was a hot topic in the State House in 2018, when it passed both Republican-controlled chambers and was signed by Gov. Chris Sununu. Democrats and other critics called the law a “poll tax” on college students, while Republicans see it as a step toward stronger integrity in the state’s voting system.

But as the law takes effect, questions remain as to how it will actually play out when voters head to the polls.

When the Monitor asked about how the law will be enforced to the Secretary of State’s office – which oversees elections – and the Division of Motor Vehicles, which issues driver’s licenses and oversees vehicle registration, each agency deferred to the other.

In terms of election law, “nothing has changed,” said Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan, who said that out-of-state college students can still vote in New Hampshire as they have in previous years – no New Hampshire ID or car registration is required when they go to the polls.

“In terms of elections they do not have to do anything else,” Scanlan wrote in an email. “Under motor vehicle law a person has a certain period of time after becoming a resident within which to obtain a driver’s license if they are going to drive a vehicle or register a car if they own one. Failure to follow a motor vehicle law, however, does not affect a person’s right to vote.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Safety said the new law has no effect on the DMV.

“The implementation of HB 1264 does not change the procedure for an individual to register a vehicle or obtain a driver’s license. Please direct questions regarding voter registrations to the Secretary of State’s Office,” wrote Michael Todd, spokesman for Department of Safety and the DMV.

Todd cited New Hampshire statute – RSA 263:35 – that states “upon the establishment of a bona fide residency in the state, (a new resident) shall have a maximum of 60 days from the date his residency was established to obtain a driver’s license issued by the state of New Hampshire.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire filed a lawsuit against the state in federal court earlier this year on behalf of two Dartmouth students who live outside the state and claim the law violates their right to vote.

“This law is designed to force voters to obtain a New Hampshire drivers’ license and registration if applicable – which can add up to hundreds of dollars,” said Henry Klementowicz, staff attorney at the ACLU, in a statement. “It is a poll tax. The law is unconstitutional and should be struck down.”

The state is seeking a dismissal with a hearing set for July 30 in Concord.

Scanlan said the law “treats all voters the same in that you have to be a resident and domiciled to vote in New Hampshire.” He rejected the notion that the law is a “poll tax.”

“The issue has been politicized, and I think it is important for people to look beyond the rhetoric and try to understand what this law actually does,” Scanlan said. “From our perspective, it realigns New Hampshire with the other 49 states in that there is a requirement to be a resident in the state to claim domicile and vote. The laws related to residency apply across the board, just as they do in other states.”

The state supreme court ultimately agreed when the court was asked by the governor to weigh in on the constitutionality of the law. In a 3-2 ruling last summer, the court concluded the law is not a burden on the right to vote but a means to better organize state laws “in order to place voters and residents on equal footing as New Hampshire citizens.”

The justices in the majority – Chief Justice Robert Lynn and Justices Anna Barbara Hantz Marconi and Patrick Donovan – also disagreed that the law is a poll tax because motor vehicle fees are not directly tied to the act of voting.

“If a person becomes obligated to pay such fees or taxes, it will not be because the person votes, but because the person owns or drives a motor vehicle and is a resident of the state,” they wrote. “Thus, a person who claims domicile in New Hampshire for voting purposes but does not drive or own a motor vehicle will have no obligation to pay motor vehicle-related fees.”

It does not appear there is any collaboration between the Secretary of State’s office and the Department of Safety to enforce this change in the law. Information on newly declared residents who registered to vote would need to be passed on to state and local police responsible for enforcing motor vehicle laws.

In April 2018 when the bill was signed, Scanlan told the Union Leader that he was unaware “of any statute that requires cross-enforcement of motor vehicle and election laws.” He then deferred further questions to the Department of Safety.

Klementowicz put the onus on the Secretary of State’s office to explain the new law to the public and specifically what responsibilities new residents have after registering to vote.

“After pushing HB 1264 through the legislature, the Secretary of State’s office is obligated to be publicly transparent about what this law entails now that it is in effect,” he said. “Those who are registered to vote in this state but have an out-of-state driver’s license must be told by the State of their new duties under the law in a timely fashion. The law has been in effect since July 1, yet we are aware of no guidelines that have been given to the public.”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3321, or on Twitter @NickStoico.)
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