What Difference Could Four Words Make? A Lot, When It Comes to N.H. Voting Laws

Feb 7, 2017

At first glance, one of the voting bills introduced by Representative David Bates this week would seem to be just a minor change, removing just four words from an existing statute.

The Windham Republican wants to strike part of the state law defining what it means to be a resident or inhabitant, or what it means to claim residency — specifically, the part that extends that definition to include people who intend to remain in New Hampshire "for the indefinite future." Those definitions, in turn, are used to help decide who’s eligible to vote in New Hampshire.

“I want to be perfectly clear, and it’s been abundantly obvious to anyone who’s looked at the bills that I’ve filed this session and in previous years, the objective of a lot of what I’ve been doing is to ensure that only residents of our state are able to vote here,” Bates told lawmakers in a House Election Law Committee hearing Tuesday morning.

This bill is part of a package of nearly a dozen election bills from Bates this year, many of which propose language changes aimed at narrowing the definition of who can claim residency for voting purposes.

On Tuesday, Bates also introduced one bill that would revoke someone's ability to vote or run for office in New Hampshire if they claim a homestead exemption or file taxes as a resident of another state. He also introduced another bill adding penalties to the existing voter fraud statute, including a new provision meant to apply to people who provide false information about another person's residency claims for voting purposes.

And all told, about 40 election-related bills are on deck this session.

Many of the proposals reflect long-running anxieties from those who believe New Hampshire’s existing voter laws are too ambiguous or leave too much room for possible abuse, despite assurances from state officials that they do not have evidence that voter fraud is a widespread problem in the state.

Other proposals being introduced this week, for example, would scrap same-day voter registration or add a requirement that someone has to be a resident of New Hampshire for at least 13 days before voting here. The residency requirement proposal introduced this year is nearly identical to a 30-day residency requirement former Gov. Maggie Hassan vetoed in 2015.

The Secretary of State’s office, while maintaining that the state’s election systems are already solid, has expressed support for residency requirements, as it has in the past, along with the idea of changing the definitions around residency laws for voting.

But other officials with the Department of Justice cautioned against changing these laws, particularly when it comes to residency definitions.

“At this point, we don’t know what the consequences of this bill are without actually going through in an exhaustive fashion and looking at each area where the residency definition is used,” attorney Brian Buonamano said Tuesday.

Buanomano told lawmakers that tinkering with voting rules by changing the residency definition could end up having unintended consequences on a number of other policy areas, including: “municipal, fish and game, drivers licenses, insurance program eligibility, reduced tuition.”

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the New Hampshire ACLU, pointed out that Bates’s bill uses the same standard for voting as is currently used for motor vehicle laws.

In turn, he said, this change could  create extra costs and requirements for people who currently live in New Hampshire but know they might be leaving in the future.

“That includes hospital residents, that includes military personnel. Or professors who know they’ll be leaving within three years or college students who know they will leave after graduation,” Bissonnette said. “These voters have a constitutional right to vote, but our concern now is when they exercise that franchise there’s going to be this legal obligation now to the state through motor vehicle fees.”

At the heart of the debate over these voting bills presented to lawmakers yesterday was the question of how to balance an interest in preventing wrongful voting with ensuring valid voters aren't disenfranchised.

It’s likely these debates will resurface again Wednesday, as the House Election Law committee hears several more bills proposing stricter rules around the state’s elections, and as similar bills make their way through the legislature this session.