Sununu feels squeeze after court OKs voter law

CONCORD – A split New Hampshire Supreme Court on Thursday OK’d the law that would change the definition of residency for out-of-state voters, potentially forcing college students from other states to get driver’s licenses before they can cast ballots.

Gov. Chris Sununu now holds the key to whether this plan, HB 1264, will go into effect. As of late Thursday, he had not indicated whether he would sign or veto the bill.

“We appreciate the time and consideration given to this matter by the New Hampshire Supreme Court and are reviewing their decision,” Sununu, a Republican, said in a statement released after the decision.

Immediately after the Thursday ruling, Democrats blasted the potential voting residency requirement. U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a former New Hampshire governor, said HB 1264 would “dissuade and intimidate Granite Staters from voting.”

U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., also a former Granite State governor, joined in attacking the ruling.

“I am disappointed in the New Hampshire’s Supreme Court’s advisory opinion about this bill, which would potentially disenfranchise thousands of Granite Staters and effectively create a virtual poll tax to access the ballot, and I urge Gov. Sununu to stick to his word and veto this partisan attempt at voter suppression,” Hassan said.

Republican leaders in the state House and Senate, on the other hand, urged Sununu to follow through on the law and sign it.

“It is a simple matter of common sense to require those who participate in our elections to abide by the same set of guidelines and become residents of New Hampshire as other voters have done,” said Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro. “This legislation guarantees all voters the same and appropriate level of fairness that has been missing in our elections.”

“The opinion provided by the justices confirms that the intent of this legislation was met and will allow our state to come into line with 49 other states, requiring that those who register to vote here meet the same requirements and are treated the same way as all New Hampshire residents,” added state Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead.

Earlier this year, Sununu asked the court to weigh in on whether the law would violate the New Hampshire Constitution before he signed it. Sununu maintains he will not take away voting rights from young people, and the high court said the proposed law doesn’t do that. Instead, the court found the state can require people who wish to vote in New Hampshire to follow the same legal requirements as all Granite State residents.

“HB 1264 has no effect on eligibility to vote, and even if we assume that its collateral consequences will discourage from voting in New Hampshire some or all of those affected by the change in the law of residence for other purposes, the bill serves the compelling state interest of insuring that those allowed to vote in this state share a community of interest with the population generally,” states the majority opinion.

Chief Justice Robert Lynn, along with associate justices Anna Barbara Hantz Marconi and Patrick Donovan, found the law in conformity with the state constitution.

Conversely, associate justices Gary Hicks and James Bassett wrote in their dissent that there is not enough factual record to even answer whether or not the law passes constitutional muster, and that the court should not weigh in on the matter.

Since the Newburger decision in 1972, college students who go to school in New Hampshire, but who do not plan to stay after graduation, have been permitted to vote in Granite State elections.

Under HB 1264, those college students would be allowed to vote in New Hampshire if they got driver’s licenses and registered their cars in the state, as is required of all other residents, a provision critics of the law have likened to a poll tax. If those same student choose to not get licensed, they are free to vote absentee in their home states.

“There is nothing unfair or unconstitutional about state laws that require persons to make this choice,” the majority opinion states.

The law has been regularly attacked by Molly Kelly, running the in the Democratic primary for governor. She took to Twitter to attack the decision, and call on Sununu to block the bill.

“Just because a bill is constitutional doesn’t make it right for NH,” Kelly tweeted. “I would have vetoed HB 1264 weeks ago because it disenfranchises voters.”

Kelly’s primary opponent, Steve Marchand, said HB 1264, as well as SB 3, need to go as part of a broader reform to elections in New Hampshire. Passed last year, SB 3 is currently the subject of a lawsuit. That law establishes criminal penalties for people who failed to properly register to vote.

Marchand wants to see publicly financed campaign finance reform as part of any fix to New Hampshire’s voting system.

“It is the only way to fix a fundamentally broken system,” Marchand said in a statement.

Damien Fisher can be reached at 594-1245 or dfisher@nashuatelegraph.com or @Telegraph_DF.