Who Gets to Claim a Stake in N.H. Elections? Untangling a Question at the Heart of 'Domicile' Debate

Mar 20, 2017

There’s plenty of debate in New Hampshire right now around the question of who should be allowed to vote here. A big part of that lies in figuring out when — and why — a person calls New Hampshire their home. Answering that question, however, isn’t always straightforward.

Curtis Moore has voted in New Hampshire since 2008. He says he's got a New Hampshire driver’s license and a New Hampshire mailing address in the town of Randolph — where he's worked off and on for the Randolph and Appalachian Mountain Clubs for nearly two decades.

As far as he can recall, registering to vote here in the first place was pretty simple.

"I just went to the town clerk and gave her an address," Moore says. "I think I did have a New Hampshire license at the time that maybe she looked at. Maybe not." Either way, he says, "I had a couple of things for proof."

Right now, though, Moore’s not in New Hampshire. In fact, he spends very little time in the state these days.

"When I initially became a New Hampshire resident, it was probably close to 50 percent of the year," Moore says. "Now, it's probably more like 10 percent — or maybe even less. It's dwindled with time."

Moore’s line of work takes him all over the place. Right now, he's in New Zealand, but he plans to be back in the summer.

Last November, Moore voted absentee from Arizona — where, at the time, he was living in an unheated yurt in a friend’s backyard while working for the National Parks Service. For the 2016 presidential primary, he voted via absentee ballot from the South Pole — where he was doing facilities maintenance.

The last time Moore voted in person in a New Hampshire election was, he thinks, 2009 or 2010. (He says he was living in Randolph for the 2012 elections but was scheduled to be working for the Appalachian Mountain Club in Maine — so he voted absentee that year, too.)

And Moore's not alone. Randolph Town Clerk Anne Kenison says she frequently deals with local trailworkers (like Moore) who put down roots in New Hampshire’s mountains but spend large chunks of the year elsewhere, sometimes on the other side of the Earth.

“I have consistently sent ballots to the South Pole for a long time," Kenison says. "For different people, not the same person." 

(Scroll down for more data on absentee voting patterns across New Hampshire.)

But Moore’s case, however unique, highlights a question at the very heart of an ongoing debate around voting in New Hampshire: What, exactly, does it take to have a stake in the state’s elections?

“I’m not trying to, you know, take advantage or undermine anyone or anything, but that's kind of the best shot I have for mail and the people and places I would want to be involved with,” Moore says. “That's kind of where I always go back to.”

On paper, the state says to be eligible to vote here, you have to claim New Hampshire as your domicile for voting purposes — which isn’t the same as saying you’re a full-time, taxpaying, New Hampshire-ID-carrying Granite Stater.

In official terms, state law says that means New Hampshire is “that one place where a person, more than any other place, has established a physical presence and manifests an intent to maintain a single continuous presence for domestic, social, and civil purposes relevant to participating in democratic self-government.” The law also includes a provision for "temporary absences," which makes clear that someone won't lose their domicile if they leave that place "with the intention of returning thereto as his or her domicile."

A simpler explanation, which you’ll often hear repeated in election law discussions at the Statehouse: You can live in more than one place throughout the year, but only one of those places can be your domicile when it comes to voting.

“I think for most people, their domicile is very clear,” explains Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan, whose job it is to oversee New Hampshire election laws. “There’s just no question. They live in one home. They don’t live in vacation homes, they don’t travel. But there is a group of citizens and people that want to vote in this state that have multiple residences, and they travel a lot, and their circumstances are — they kind of fall into the grey area.”

There are lots of reasons someone might fall into that grey area. New Hampshire clerks say they see all kinds of cases like this: The seasonal resident who owns a lake home on Winnipesaukee or a cabin in Jefferson, the snowbird who lives in Bedford but flees to Florida for six months of the year.

Right now, the law gives those people some flexibility to figure out which place they feel most connected to for voting purposes. 

But some Republican state lawmakers, including Sen. Regina Birdsell of Hampstead, say there's too much grey area. Birdsell is the lead sponsor of a bill that would change the definition of domicile and add new requirements for those registering to vote.

“It says you just can’t have it in your head that you’re domiciled in this state,” Birdsell said during a recent public hearing on the bill. “Domicile for purposes of voting is a question of fact, and it has to be coupled with a verifiable act or acts carried out with that intent.”

Birdsell’s bill would require new voters to prove that they’ve taken some kind of steps to put roots down in New Hampshire. Those steps might include getting a driver’s license, signing a lease or mortgage, paying utilities or enrolling your kids in local public schools. 

Supporters of such election reforms have said, broadly, that they think votes from people who are in the state only temporarily undermine the votes of people who are here long-term. But that’s where the issue raises red flags about voter disenfranchisement — and questions about who gets to have a voice.

Does a college student who lives here nine months of the year have less of a stake in their local government than the retiree who spends a chunk of their year out-of-state at a vacation home? And what about people who land in New Hampshire but aren’t quite sure how long they’ll be here, but still want to engage with local politics?

That brings us back to Moore. How, exactly, does he define his connection to the state?

“I have a storage unit in New Hampshire, so that keeps me coming back. Friends and family kind of keeps me coming back,” Moore says. “It's pretty convenient to have an address in New Hampshire, for mail, and I'm usually heading back there anyway. It's kind of a combination of factors.”

Maybe spending just 10 percent of the year in New Hampshire isn’t much of a residence, he says— but for now, it’s the closest thing he has to a home. So that’s where he votes.

 

Map: Absentee Voting Across N.H.

Last November, Moore was one of 72 Randolph voters who participated using an absentee ballot. At about 28 percent (out of 260 total voters), the tiny community in northern New Hampshire had the fifth-highest rate of absentee voting in the state.

And that's not out of the ordinary. Town clerk Ann Kenison says she routinely encounters a large share of absentee voters — anywhere from about 40 to 70 absentee ballots is “normal” for a presidential election, she says.

Kenison attributes Randolph’s high rate of absentee voters to a number of factors: It’s home to lots of trailworkers and others who commute long distances for work (to Massachusetts or to Antartica), but also to lots of elderly residents who might have trouble making it to the polls and retirees who might live in the community on only a part-time basis.

“I pretty much know everybody in town,” Kenison says. “And I know which people are going to come through and which people are going to need an absentee ballot because they work in Boston three days a week or they go to the South Pole.”

Statewide, the average rate of absentee voting was just under 10 percent for the November 2016 election. Hart’s Location technically boasted the highest share in New Hampshire, at 41 percent — but it only had 39 voters overall, and 16 of them voted absentee.

Millsfield came in second place (with 7 out of 21 voters, or 33 percent), followed by Waterville Valley (87 of 272 voters, or 32 percent) and Hale’s Location (37 out of 126 voters, or 29 percent).

Explore the interactive below to see how many people in your town voted absentee during the last election. More information on New Hampshire's absentee voting rules can be found here.