Sununu Seeks Court Opinion on Voting Bill

  • FILE - In this photo taken Wednesday June 29, 2016 Executive Councilor Chris Sununu listens during the Council meeting Concord, N.H. Sununu is seeking the Republican nomination for governor. New Hampshire has struggled to attract and retain young people, a trend that's likely to continue without major policy changes. While the gubernatorial candidates propose solutions to the problem in bits and pieces, few have a full scale of ideas to address New Hampshire's demographic challenges.(AP Photo/Jim Cole/FILE)

Concord Monitor
Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Concord — Gov. Chris Sununu said he still has deep concerns over a bill to make voting an effective declaration of residency. But resolving them could come down to the Supreme Court.

In a late agenda item submitted ahead of today’s Executive Council meeting, Sununu requested that the court weigh in on the constitutionality of House Bill 1264, a proposal to merge the definitions of “domicile” and “residency” for the purposes of voting.

The move, anticipated last week, would ask that the court weigh in on whether the controversial bill would violate the state or federal constitutions. But it will need Executive Council approval to move ahead to the Supreme Court clerk’s desk.

Under present New Hampshire law, those who are “domiciled” may vote, a status defined as one who has “established a physical presence” in the state “more than any other place.” By merging the definition of domicile with residency, HB 1264 would make voting an effective declaration of residency, which carries additional responsibilities.

While supporters say the bill is meant to clear confusion, critics have pointed to college students and transient workers who rely on the “domicile” status to vote. Making them de facto residents would put them on the hook for vehicle registration and driver’s license fees, amounting to an effective “poll tax,” opponents say.

Sununu has had a murky relationship with the Republican proposal, expressing “serious concerns” over the proposal in recent months, and telling an activist that he “hated” the bill and thought it might not withstand scrutiny in the courts, in an exchange secretly caught on video and released in December.

But he has yet to publicly commit to a veto and has signified openness to allowing the legislation to move ahead if changes were made.

In his request to the Supreme Court, the governor asks that the justices wade into two areas: Whether the overall bill is, on its face, constitutional; and whether its specific application to college students would be also constitutional.

The request centers on three areas of law: the Equal Protection Clauses of both the state and federal constitutions, and Article 11 of the state Bill of Rights, which centers on election law.

That part states that “every inhabitant of the state 18 years of age and upwards shall have an equal right to vote in any election” — defining “inhabitant” as a person with a domicile in a New Hampshire city or town.

The article also states that, “The right to vote shall not be denied to any person because of the non-payment of any tax.”

Whether that applies to driver’s licenses required as a result of declaring residency will be a key question facing the court.

In a statement on Tuesday, Sununu reiterated his hesitation.

“My position has not changed,” he said. “I remain concerned about the bill’s constitutionality, and as such, I am asking the Supreme Court to weigh in on this issue to put this matter to rest once and for all.”