State Senate passes HB 372

by Abby Mihaly | 1/4/18 2:00am

The New Hampshire Senate passed House Bill 372 yesterday 14-9, along party lines, redefining the term “resident” for New Hampshire inhabitants. Opponents have criticized the bill’s purpose statement, which says that “a person must be a resident of New Hampshire to vote or hold office in New Hampshire.” While some Republicans claim the bill only clarifies existing definitions, Democrats worry that voters, including students, may have to register cars and obtain in-state drivers licenses in order to vote in the state. The bill will now return to the House for consideration.

The original bill was introduced in 2017 by State Rep. David Bates, a Republican, and aimed to redefine the term “resident,” removing a condition that residents must intend to remain in the state “for the indefinite future.” In 2015, the state Supreme Court struck down a law requiring voters to sign an affidavit stating they were in compliance with state residency laws, a law that the American Civil Liberties Union argued unfairly discriminated against long-term but temporary voters such as students.

“The bill, as I introduced it, was nothing more than striking four words [from the definition of resident]: the phrase ‘for the indefinite future,’” Bates explained.

However, after the bill passed the House, it was taken up in the Senate Election Law and Internal Affairs Committee. The committee then passed an amendment that included a statement of purpose saying that voters must be New Hampshire residents, which has drawn widespread debate.

Voters who do not currently meet New Hampshire residency requirements include students holding a driver’s license or car registration from another state. If one chooses to become a New Hampshire resident, therefore abandoning residency status in any other state, one has 60 days to register their motor vehicle and obtain a New Hampshire’s driver’s license, both for a fee.

President of the Dartmouth College Democrats Jennifer West ’20 said HB 372 would mean these students, unless they choose to become New Hampshire residents, would not have a say in legislation affecting them, such as last year’s vote on Article 9, which involved student housing. Many Dartmouth students have also added their names to a petition, organized by NH Students Against HB 372 and signed by over 200 college students nationwide, in opposition to the bill.

Despite agreeing with the end goal of requiring residency to vote, Bates said he did not believe this legislation would make that change, as the requirements for voter registration stated in Chapter 654 of the New Hampshire Statutes, which state that students can lawfully claim domicile for voting purposes, would not change. Republican State Sen. James Gray, a member of the Senate Committee that originally passed the amendment, also brought up this chapter in Senate floor debate yesterday, denying the bill would cause students to be unable to vote.

Though Bates did not believe his original bill addressed the issue of a voter residency requirement, he agreed with the goal.

“I just think that’s an absurd policy [that non-residents can vote], and that’s one of the things I want to see changed,” he said.

Bates said that certain responsibilities come with the choice to call New Hampshire a home, such as paying taxes, complying with laws and registering one’s car.

Government professor Linda Fowler said Republicans may be attempting to discourage college voters who are perceived to likely be Democratic.

“Republicans are making a short-term calculation based on their loss of a Senate seat in 2016, when they should be thinking hard about why young people are disproportionately backing their opponents,” Fowler wrote in an email.

In the 2016 New Hampshire senate race, Democratic candidate Maggie Hassan won against the incumbent, Kelly Ayotte, by 0.1 percent.

Democrats have argued a residency requirement is unfair to potential voters, due to the financial burden it can bring. West called the bill a “post-election poll tax,” a view also expressed by the New Hampshire ACLU.

“If somebody is told that they are going to have to pay fines just to vote, I think that’s a strong deterrent,” West said.

New Hampshire State Sen. Jeff Woodburn, a Democrat, said the bill fits into a nationwide trend of voter suppression legislation.

“Essentially this is part of an ongoing national effort to make it harder for people to vote that demographically tend to vote for more progressive, democratic candidates,” he said.

During Senate floor debate on Wednesday, Democratic State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro spoke of his belief in the importance of easy access to voting.

“Our goal as public officials should be to get 100 percent of the people who are eligible to vote, to vote,” he said on Wednesday during Senate floor debate.

Bates however said the phrase “poll tax” is nothing more than “political rhetoric.”

“It’s part of a political ploy stirring up all of the controversy over this,” he said.

On the Senate floor on Wednesday, Republicans emphasized that whether or not a person qualifies as a resident has more to do with whether a person intends to commit to a certain town and community. But Hanover town clerk Betsy McClain said whether or not a person, especially a student, can vote should not depend on future plans. She added that legislating the intent of a voter is impossible.

“In my mind, there are so many reasons that trying to legislate intent is like trying to tack down Jello,” McClain said. “I don’t know why we would need to do it.”

Democratic State Sen. Jay Kahn said on the Senate floor that though students often choose their state of residency when obtaining a driver’s license, they then also choose to make a commitment to New Hampshire when they move to the state for school. He added that since students are asked to abide by state laws, they have a right and even an obligation to participate in the community.

Woodburn said regardless of residency status, students are an important bloodline to a growing state and HB 372 may alienate potential young voters rather than welcoming them to New Hampshire.

Opponents hope that Republican Gov. Chris Sununu will veto the bill, should it pass the house. When Sununu was asked about the bill from December, he said in a video posted to YouTube, “I hate it.” Bates, however, said Sununu was misinformed by the explanation of the interviewer when he made the comment on video.

Even if the bill were to pass the house, Bates said he believes it is a misconception that the bill would change voter registration requirements.

“I don’t believe [this bill] does what everybody is claiming it does,” he said.