State Officials, Activists Try to Sway N.H. Supreme Court's Review of Voter Residency Bill

May 31, 2018

The State Supreme Court is still deciding whether or not it will weigh in on the constitutionality of a newly passed voter residency bill. But it now has about 175 pages of outside input to help it decide whether the bill should become law — and whether it should even weigh in at all.

Gov. Chris Sununu asked the court to review House Bill 1264 earlier this month, saying he wanted an assessment of its constitutionality before deciding whether to sign it.

HB 1264 would remove just four words — "for the indefinite future" — from the state's definition of who counts as a New Hampshire resident.

Supporters say the goal is to eliminate the distinction between "residency" and "domicile" in order to ensure that those who are only in the state temporarily aren't swaying its elections. Opponents say the measure would, in turn, make it harder for college students and other transient groups to vote. 

The deadline for state officials and members of the public to provide input on the court's review of HB 1264 was Thursday afternoon. Ten parties took the court up on that offer, and all of their memos can be read on the court’s website.

Some, including the Granite State Taxpayers, urged the court to deem HB 1264 constitutional — citing concerns that the state's existing residency standards are too lax

Others, including the ACLU of New Hampshire, said the court shouldn’t issue any opinion right now. If it must, the ACLU said the court should declare HB1264 unconstitutional as it would, in their view, disenfranchise some voters.  

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State’s office filed a brief that seems to contradict both of those arguments — and its own past testimony on the legislation. In its memo to the court, the Secretary of State's office said the new voter residency bill “leaves New Hampshire election law unchanged.”

“As a result, the Secretary of State has no intent to make changes to the current implementation, administration, monitoring, or enforcement of the state’s election law in the event of HB 1264 is enacted,” their memo states.

The same memo states that “all-pre-, post-, and Election Day procedures will remain unaffected whether or not HB 1264 becomes law,” including “voter eligibility,” “the act of registering to vote and voting,” and “procedures related to the registration of voters.”

For the last several months, top officials with the Secretary of State’s office have repeatedly lobbied in favor of HB 1264, saying the proposed changes were needed to clarify voting eligibility standards.

“We are the only state in the country where you do not have to be a resident to vote — the only state,” Secretary of State Bill Gardner said at one such legislative hearing on HB 1264, citing an analysis his office conducted to compare New Hampshire’s eligibility standards against every other state in the country.

“That is confusing to people,” Gardner continued. “What is the difference between domicile and residence? If you ask a person, they have no idea what the difference is. And they don’t understand, how can you not be a resident of a place and still be able to vote?”