By Dave Solomon
Gov. Chris Sununu has signed into law a controversial election bill that opponents say will constrain voting by students and other transient residents of the state.
Supporters applauded the move as a way to ensure that only bonafide New Hampshire residents vote in New Hampshire elections.
"After receiving an advisory opinion from the New Hampshire Supreme Court finding the bill to be constitutional, I signed HB 1264 into law," the governor said in a statement released Friday after a low-key signing with no ceremonial trappings, as student protesters lined the hall outside his door.
"House Bill 1264 restores equality and fairness to our elections, and the Supreme Court has ruled the bill is constitutional while affirming that New Hampshire has a compelling state interest in seeing this bill enacted. Finally, every person who votes in New Hampshire will be treated the same. This is the essence of an equal right to vote," Sununu said.
Reaction ranging from outrage to accolades followed within minutes of Sununu's signature.
"Gov. Sununu broke his word by signing this shameful attempt at partisan voter suppression into law, which is a giant step backward for our state and has the potential to disenfranchise thousands of Granite Staters," said Sen. Maggie Hassan, Sununu's predecessor in the governor's office.
In a statement headlined, "We won -- Your Vote Matters," NHGOP Chair Wayne MacDonald credited legislative leadership.
"Voter integrity matters to the people of New Hampshire, and Granite State Republicans have led on the issue of increasing voter integrity in our state," he said. "Republican legislative leadership deserves high praise for getting this crucial legislation passed."
Sununu's decision to sign HB 1264 comes after two years of contentious debate in the state Legislature; a promise by the governor to veto any bill that would block student voting and a state Supreme Court advisory opinion that provided Sununu with legal cover to sign the bill.
Sununu has for months expressed reservations about the bill, which defines residency and domicile as the same thing, and requires voters to declare New Hampshire as their place of residence. That means getting a state driver's license and vehicle registration within 60 days.
Once the law takes effect, transient voters -- like college students, military personnel, medical residents or visiting professors -- will have to decide to abandon the identification and motor vehicle registration from their native state and become a New Hampshire resident, or vote by absentee ballot in their native state.
This will have the effect of suppressing their vote, according to critics, who claim people should be able to vote where they are living (domicile) as long as they don't vote anywhere else.
Sununu painted himself into a political corner in December when he was recorded on video at an event in Manchester telling a young political activist that he hated the bill.
As the activist begins to ask Sununu about the bill, the governor interjects, "I know what you're talking about. I'm not a fan. I'm hoping that the Legislature kills it."
The activist asked Sununu if he would veto the bill or others like it, to which the governor replied, "I will never support anything that suppresses the student vote. End of story."
In an op-ed piece submitted to the New Hampshire Union Leader, Sununu acknowledges that exchange. "I had expressed serious concerns regarding the bill's constitutionality from the very beginning," he said.
But the court's advisory opinion appears to have erased those concerns.
"In signing this bill, no promises were broken," according to the governor. "I never said I would veto this bill, but I did promise to stand up for fairness and equal opportunity for all Granite Staters."
In seeking the advisory opinion from the court, Sununu asked the justices to address whether the overall bill is constitutional and whether its specific application to college students would also be constitutional.
Sununu's signature came one day after the state Supreme Court issued its advisory opinion on Thursday that HB 1264 is constitutional.
Chief Justice Robert Lynn was joined by Associate Justices Barbara Hantz Marconi and Patrick E. Donovan in ruling the law might disproportionately affect students or other constituencies, but that alone does not make it unconstitutional.
Justices Gary Hicks and James Bassett issued a separate opinion, alluding to issues of fact that are in dispute and the lack of a factual record upon which to base an opinion.
"The constitutional duty of the justices of the Supreme Court to give advisory opinions does not include answering legal questions that require resolving questions of fact," they wrote.
Controversy surrounding the law is not likely to end with Sununu's signature, as opponents like the American Civil Liberties Union and the N.H. Democratic Party have pointed out that the advisory opinion is not necessarily a guarantee of how the court would rule in an actual litigated case.
The bill doesn't take effect until July 1, 2019, and so won't come into play in the elections this fall.
(c)2018 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.)