Court Strikes Down New Hampshire's Voter Residency Law

by | May 19, 2015

The New Hampshire Supreme Court Friday unanimously struck down a 2012 state law that required voters be state residents, not just domiciled here, in order to vote.

"Today's ruling acknowledges that elections should be free, fair and accessible to all people in a democracy," said Gilles Bissonnette, of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire (ACLU-NH).

The state had appealed two lower court decisions that ruled in favor of four voters and the League of Women Voters who claimed the law violated the state constitution.

"We're reviewing the decision," said Assistant Attorney General Stephen G. LaBonte, who represented the state. "We have no comment at this time."

In June 2012, the Legislature, overriding Gov. John Lynch's veto, passed Senate Bill 318, which required people registering to vote to sign an affidavit agreeing they were subject to the state's residency laws, "including laws requiring a driver to register a motor vehicle and apply for a New Hampshire driver's license within 60 days of becoming a resident."

The ACLU argued the language of the law regarding residency and domicile was confusing. The distinction matters because the definition of "resident" is very strict, requiring a person to intend to live in the state for the "indefinite future."

The ACLU contended imposing a "residency" condition on the right to vote would disenfranchise college students living in New Hampshire, a Manchester executive intending to retire in Florida, a medical resident living here while completing her hospital training, or a member of the U.S. Navy who lives in Portsmouth but knows she will be transferred somewhere else in two years.

Being domiciled, according to the ACLU, does not mean anyone can vote in the state simply because they want to or are in the state on Election Day. Instead, it argued, a person is domiciled in New Hampshire for voting purposes if that person has a continuous physical presence here and treats this state as "home."

The Supreme Court found the language added to the voter registration form inaccurately states New Hampshire law because a person who has only a domicile, but who does not meet the statutory definition of resident, is not subject to state laws that apply to all residents.

The court said the language is confusing and susceptible to different interpretations.

The court said the state's contention that the new language did not change the definition of "domicile" and "residency" actually conflicted with public statements of certain state representatives after litigation began.

The court also rejected the state's justification for the law -- that it was enacted to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA). That justification "appears to have been 'invented post hoc in response to (this) legislation,'" the court said.

Those challenging the law were represented by attorneys William E. Christie, Benjamin Siracusa Hillman and Alan J. Cronheim.

LaBonte and Associate Attorney General Anne M. Edwards represented the state.

(c)2015 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.)]