Election law a big issue this session

  • FILE - In this Jan. 10, 2012, file photo, ballot inspector Connie Bell, right, holds open a curtain on a voting booth during voting in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary at Memorial High School in Manchester, N.H. It’s been 100 years since New Hampshire held its first presidential primary, and it seems like some of the current candidates have been hanging around for nearly that long.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Monitor staff
Published: 2/7/2017 11:54:05 PM

Republicans promised tightening up the state’s voting laws would be one of their big priorities for the legislative session, and judging by the number of election law bills running through the Legislature, that promise is holding true.

A couple of those bills aim to tighten the definition of a “resident” of the state and spell out what it means to be domiciled in New Hampshire. Another bill would eliminate same-day voter registration in the state.

The New Hampshire House election law committee heard testimony and will continue to hear testimony today.

“I want to be perfectly clear and abundantly obvious ... the objective of the law is to ensure that only residents of our state are able to vote here,” state Rep. David Bates, a Republican from Windham, said Tuesday. Bates is sponsoring 11 bills on election law this session.

When it comes to defining a state resident and domicile, one of Bates’s bills would remove the words “for the indefinite future” from the current law, so that it reads “the place of abode or domicile is that designated by a person as his or her principal place of physical presence.”

Bates said this wording change would help ensure that only New Hampshire residents are voting in state elections, but the bill’s opponents said it could have a serious impact on residents including college students, members of the military and retirees with homes in other states.

The legislation is nothing new in the state – past legislatures have considered residency requirements in order for people to vote, but they’ve always been shot down by past Democratic governors.

With Republican Gov. Chris Sununu now in the corner office, those bills will have more of a chance of clearing the governor’s desk. Sununu often characterized the state’s voting laws as too lax during the election, echoing Donald Trump’s claims of voter fraud.

“We have same-day voter registration, and to be honest, when Massachusetts elections are not very close, they’re busing them in all over the place,” Sununu said on the Howie Carr Show at the end of October.

The committee room was packed on Tuesday, mostly with people who had come to register their opposition.

With a son about three years out of college, Concord resident Mike Sheehan said he was concerned the bill would send the wrong message to young people.

Sheehan said he knows plenty of young people raised in New Hampshire who went off to college in other states and are now back.

“They’re now living at home, they don’t have a plan to be here forever,” Sheehan said. “They might, they might not. This bill discourages those people. It says, ‘We don’t want you here.’ ”

Assistant Attorney General Brian Buonamano said his office is concerned the consequences of the bill could outweigh its protections.

“Our concern is simply whether or not this committee has a true understanding of all the consequences of this bill,” said Assistant Attorney General Brian Buonamano. “At this point, we don’t know what the consequences of this bill are.”

Buonamano said changing the definition of state resident could potentially have an impact on in-state tuition or the ability to get a driver’s license.

However, Bates said he believes the definition needs to be addressed to crack down on any potential cases of voter fraud.

The state representative said he is aware of at least one individual in Windham who continued to use an address in town to vote in New Hampshire elections – months after she had moved to a different state.

“I don’t know how anybody can seriously vote from that address,” he said.

Assistant Secretary of State Dave Scanlan said domicile can be a gray area because it involves intent. In addition, current law states that when a person moves, they retain their domicile until they move to another location.

“Everybody has a right to vote somewhere, we just need to know where that place was,” Scanlan said.

For instance, Scanlan used the example of people who may sell their house and buy a motor home for a period of time.

“That person should still be entitled to vote,” he said. “Each situation is unique, and I think you need to look at the specific circumstance.”

American Civil Liberties Union-NH Legal Director Gilles Bissonnette said he was concerned the bill tying voting to residency would impose additional requirements on New Hampshire voters, such as a requirement to get a new driver’s license and register their car to prove residency.

“It acts as a post-election cost imposition,” Bissonnette said, adding that the move could disproportionately affect members of the military, professors or college students.

“These voters obviously have a constitutional right to vote,” Bissonnette said.

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter

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