Judge allows Dartmouth students’ voter residency lawsuit to move ahead

  • Dartmouth rising juniors Caroline Casey, 20, of Baton Rouge, La., (left) and Maggie Flaherty, 20, of Ukiah, Calif., are plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU to challenge a new law that would subject college students who vote to residency requirements such as obtaining in-state driver’s licenses or car registrations. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Sarah Rice. for The Washington Post — Sarah Rice

  • Dartmouth student Caroline Casey unpacks in off-campus housing in Hanover, N.H. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Sarah Rice. Sarah Rice

  • Dartmouth student Maggie Flaherty washes dishes in her new kitchen. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Sarah Rice. Sarah Rice

  • From left: students Kirby Phares, Garrett Muscatel, Maggie Flaherty, Becky Milner, Naomi Miller, and Caroline Casey (standing) have lunch the day before summer session classes start at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Sarah Rice. Sarah Rice

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/30/2019 10:21:33 PM
Modified: 7/30/2019 10:21:25 PM

CONCORD — A lawsuit brought by two Dartmouth College students claiming that New Hampshire’s voter residency law amounts to a poll tax will be allowed to go forward, a federal judge said Tuesday.

However, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Laplante cast doubt on whether the legal challenge will be successful, saying the chances seemed “remote.”

“I’m not saying this is a particularly strong challenge,” Laplante said during a nearly two-hour hearing in Concord. “But the plaintiffs have standing.”

The lawsuit, which was filed early this year by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, targets HB 1264, a law that amended the state’s definition of “domiciled” so that people who cast ballots in elections also are subject to residency laws. That means college students who grew up elsewhere but opt to vote in New Hampshire need to obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license and register their cars in the state, among other requirements.

The ACLU, which represents Dartmouth sophomores Caroline Casey and Maggie Flaherty in the case, says the law forces out-of-state college students to pay $50 for a New Hampshire’s driver’s license and hundreds of dollars in car registration fees to become eligible to vote.

They also contend that getting a ride to the Division of Motor Vehicles’ offices in either Claremont or North Haverhill would be burdensome to many Dartmouth students who do not bring their cars to campus.

Casey, who is from Louisiana, and Flaherty, a California native, both hold out-of-state driver’s licenses and do not plan on staying in the Granite State after graduation in 2021.

The students were joined in the lawsuit by the New Hampshire Democratic Party, which says the law will intimidate “young, underprivileged, and transitory voters” and harm candidates who would lose their votes.

But the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office defended the law on Tuesday, arguing it doesn’t change eligibility requirements for voters, and saying a $50 charge isn’t burdensome to those who already own cars.

“These are just basic factors of residency that everyone has to do in New Hampshire,” said Assistant Attorney General Seth Michael Zoracki. “(The law) puts residents and voters on equal footing as New Hampshire citizens.”

Zoracki also argued the law isn’t about elections, and instead pertains to motor vehicle standards. He went onto say that those enforcing it wouldn’t be privy to state voter rolls.

That assertion drew a sharp line of questioning from Laplante, who at several points challenged the state’s attorneys to describe how someone could be prosecuted if officials can’t obtain a voting record.

“If we can’t think of any ways this law changes election law, and we can’t think of any ways it changes motor vehicle laws, what is this law and what does it do?” the judge asked. “What’s going on here, except maybe some people being discouraged from voting?”

ACLU attorney Henry Klementowicz said it’s possible to subpoena voting records. Police could do that after pulling over a student with out-of-state plates who claims to live at a college, he said.

Laplante also rejected the state’s request that Secretary of State Bill Gardner be removed as a defendant, and called it a “red herring.”

Zoracki later acknowledged the request was made in part to protect the high-ranking official from a discovery and deposition process.

Gardner and his staff testified several times in favor of the residency law before it was signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, last year.

Ultimately, Laplante said the law’s purpose “is to discourage or prevent non-residents from voting,” but a case will determine whether those motivations are legal.

Attorneys on both sides appeared undeterred by the judge’s comments, saying after the hearing that their arguments will ultimately be proved at trial.

“This gives us an opportunity to go out and develop a record and put on actual evidence to show how the law is going to operate,” said Klementowicz, the ACLU attorney. “That’s an opportunity that we’re looking forward to — to be able to develop and show how these people (will be affected).”

The two Dartmouth students were in attendance but didn’t speak during the hearing.

Meanwhile, the state will continue to contend that the law doesn’t alter voting requirements and is instead a motor vehicle statute, said Zoracki, the assistant attorney general. “We expect to make the same arguments (at trial),” he said.

The hearing came a day after Sununu vetoed legislation seeking to reverse the residency law to its pre-2018 state.

The bill, HB106, “would take us back to the days of unequal treatment of voters,” Sununu said in his veto message. “New Hampshire now aligns with virtually every other state in requiring residency to vote.”

The action drew a sharp rebuke from Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, D-Concord, who said the governor intended to make voting more difficult.

“Unfortunately, because of the governor’s vetoes today, some eligible voters, including college students and senior citizens, may be discouraged or even blocked by current law from exercising their right to vote,” Feltes, who is considering a run for governor, said in a statement.

It’s unlikely Democrats can muster the two-thirds majority to override Sununu’s veto. The residency bill passed the Senate, 14-10, on party lines. The story was largely the same in the House, which saw the measure pass, 213-154.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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