State high court hears from 10 parties on voting rights bill

CONCORD (AP) – Ten individuals or groups have weighed in as the New Hampshire Supreme Court decides whether to consider the constitutionality of ending the state’s distinction between full-fledged residents and those who claim the state as their domicile in order to vote.

Current law allows college students and others who say they are domiciled in New Hampshire to vote without being official residents subject to residency requirements, such as getting a New Hampshire driver’s license or registering a vehicle.

The Legislature sent Republican Gov. Chris Sununu a bill last week to align the definitions of domicile and residency, but he wants the court to clarify whether doing so would be constitutional.

Thursday was the deadline for parties to submit documents to the court, which has not yet decided whether to answer the question. Five groups or individuals, including the Republican-led House and Senate and several taxpayer advocacy organizations, submitted documents to the court backing the bill.

Democrats in the Senate and on the governor’s Executive Council opposed it, along with the New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In its memo, the ACLU argued that the court shouldn’t even consider the issue, but if it does, it should find that the bill arbitrarily and irrationally targets college students and would impose discriminatory financial requirements on them.

In a memo filed jointly with the Fair Elections Center, the group also said the bill would treat similar people differently solely based on voter registration. For example, if twins from Maine moved to New Hampshire to attend college and one of them registered to vote, that person would be required to also register his or her car while the other would not.

“The imposition of fees on voters simply because they decide to register to vote in New Hampshire is the very definition of a poll tax,” said Gilles Bissonnette, the ACLU’s legal director. He said the bill should be declared unconstitutional.

Supporters of the legislation, however, argued that a poll tax exists only if paying a fee is required before voting, which would not be the case if it passes.

With the exception of felons, all residents would be fully eligible to vote regardless of whether they paid their taxes, registered their cars or obtained drivers’ licenses.

Supporters also argued that the bill clears up confusion and ends the practice of having two classes of voters in the state.

“Current law creates a special classification of privileged voters who are empowered to make a la carte decisions about which aspects of membership in the body politic they will accept and which they will reject,” attorneys for the state Senate wrote.

“Requiring a person seeking to maximize his or her political voice by voting in New Hampshire to become a New Hampshire resident, and to participate on the same level as the life-long New Hampshire resident, does not create an impermissible class.”

The attorney general’s office didn’t take sides but said it is appropriate for the court to consider the issue.

The secretary of state’s office also didn’t offer an opinion on the bill’s constitutionality but said the change would have no impact on election law or procedure.