A pair of nearly identical bills to restrict residency requirements for voting coasted through the Republican-controlled Legislature this session. But now, both are running into roadblocks near the finish line.
Right now, that definition includes people who have demonstrated their intent to make New Hampshire their “principal place of physical presence for the indefinite future to the exclusion of all others.”
Both bills would remove “for the indefinite future” from that clause. Proponents argue that change will ensure that only people who have a true connection to New Hampshire can participate in its elections, but critics say it will make it more difficult for transient populations, including out-of-state college students, to vote.
The legislature sent one of the bills, HB 1264, to Gov. Chris Sununu's desk last week, but the governor declined to either sign or veto it on the spot. Instead, he’s asking the State Supreme Court to weigh in. He'll make that request at Wednesday's executive council meeting.
“My position has not changed,” Sununu said in a statement issued by his office on Tuesday. “I remain concerned about the bill’s constitutionality, and as such, I am asking the Supreme Court to weigh in on this issue to put this matter to rest once and for all.”
The governor's position on both bills has been hard to pin down — even for the lawmakers at the center of the debate.
Rep. David Bates, who sponsored HB 372, said Sununu and his policy advisors “haven’t given any guidance at all as to what they would like to see in these bills.”
“The most we heard is the kind of infamous video,” Bates said.
That video, from last December, showed Sununu telling a student activist that he opposed one of the voter residency bills and hoped the legislature would kill it.
Since then, the governor has said he opposes both residency bills as written but hasn't elaborated on what changes, if any, would help to win his support. That lack of clarity from Sununu, and his recent decision to request input from the court, has left lawmakers unsure what to do with House Bill 372 while it’s still pending.
A committee of conference was supposed to meet on Tuesday to decide how to reconcile any differences between the versions of HB 372 passed by the House and the Senate, but they postponed taking action until Thursday so they could see what happens with Sununu’s request for a review of HB 1264.
“Ideally, what I’d love to see the governor do is come and express to these conferees what he would like to see different in this legislation,” Bates said. “I have asked the governor’s office through his policy people to give us that information. If they don’t like the language as it is now, tell us how you want it to be changed. Because this is an important issue, and I would like to think the governor will get behind seeing to it that only residents of our state are allowed to vote here.”
Sen. Regina Birdsell, a leading supporter of both bills and a member of the committee that’s deciding what to do with HB 372, says she’s engaged in ongoing discussions with Sununu’s office about the next steps for that piece of legislation.
“We don’t have a lot of time to tinker,” Birdsell said, with a laugh, when asked if there were any areas of the bill that have been singled out for further changes based on the governor’s feedback.
“I’ll leave that to the governor to let us know.”
For now, all eyes seem to be on Wednesday’s executive council meeting for more clarity from Sununu on his thought process around the bills and how that might affect their fate moving forward.