Voter residency law opponents seek to block enforcement
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Opponents of New Hampshire’s new law requiring voters to be full-fledged residents asked a judge Thursday to block its enforcement, claiming it has caused confusion. But the state countered that any confusion is “self-created and sustained.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and others are suing the secretary of the state over the law, which took effect in July and ended the distinction between residency and domicile.
Though it doesn’t change the process of registering to vote, it effectively makes out-of-state college students who vote in New Hampshire subject to residency requirements, such as obtaining drivers’ licenses and registering cars.
While the case is pending, the plaintiffs want to block the state from using voter registration information to enforce motor vehicle laws in part because they argue the new law “inherently confusing.”
Elizabeth McClain, the town clerk in Hanover, testified that she was unsatisfied with the lack of guidance from the secretary of state’s office about what to tell would-be voters who asked about the law’s consequences.
She said it didn’t make sense, given that her office also handles car registrations and that staff members frequently tell applicants about their obligation to also get drivers’ licenses.
“For us to be mum is uncomfortable from a customer service point of view, and unsatisfactory from a citizen point of view,” she said. “If registering to vote is a trigger the same way registering a vehicle is, there should be a simple answer to that.”
But Samuel Garland, an attorney for the state, argued that the requirement to get a license is triggered by when a person establishes residency, which may or may not be on the day he or she registers to vote.
“There is not a clear answer to this question,” he said.
Garland also sought to weaken the arguments made by Mary Catherine Suskie, a student at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law. She registered to vote in Concord in October but said she is now worried that she won’t be able to vote unless she gets a New Hampshire driver’s license or registers her car, or that she could lose her health insurance because she is on her parents’ plan in her home state of Arkansas.
Garland’s questioning revealed that she wouldn’t lose her insurance, that she doesn’t own the car she drives so she wouldn’t have to register it, and that obtaining a New Hampshire license prior to voting is not required.
Democrats, including many of the presidential candidates campaigning in New Hampshire, argue the new law amounts to voter suppression by essentially imposing a “poll tax” in the form of license and vehicle registration fees. But Republicans and other supporters of the law note that it is in line with residency requirements in other states, including many of the critics’ home states.
“The plaintiffs have been publicly pushing their tenuous litigation position as if it were established fact in the media, making dubious representations to the public that (the law) is a poll tax, requires persons to have or obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license or motor vehicle registration in order to vote here, and imposes criminal penalties on persons. Those public statements are not accurate,” the state wrote in objecting to the plaintiffs’ motion. “Thus, to the extent confusion exists, it is of the plaintiffs’ own making.”
Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan testified that he has fielded only a handful of calls about the law and said there has been “very little” confusion.
But the plaintiffs stressed that election officials in the two biggest college towns — Hanover and Durham — have expressed concern.