It’s not as common nowadays in the more mainstream promotions, but anyone familiar with old-school professional wrestling can easily conjure the image of the “heel,” having just cold-cocked the good guy with brass knuckles or choked him with a short piece of rope, quickly tucking the dastardly “foreign object” into his tights and holding up his open hands to the referee, as if to say: “I don’t know what happened to him while your back was turned, but it certainly wasn’t me. Look: My hands are empty.”
That’s the act the governor, secretary of state and Republican lawmakers have been putting on regarding their efforts to suppress the vote of out-of-state and non-local students attending New Hampshire colleges.
Several years ago, when Gov. Chris Sununu took office, joining a GOP majority in both chambers of the Legislature, one of the first priorities of all was to pass legislation to throw hurdles in front of those students, should they try to vote here in the Granite State. Effort one was Senate Bill 3, which this week is being contested in a Manchester courtroom. That bill rewrote state law to require anyone registering to vote within 30 days of an election — as college students often do here — to sign a confusing affidavit that threatens a $5,000 fine and jail time if they can’t subsequently prove their residency.
The N.H. League of Women Voters, along with the state Democratic Party, which theoretically benefits from having more college-age voters, took the state to court over the law, arguing it’s so confusing to those unversed in the legalese of election law that an ordinary voter would be deterred from voting even when eligible.
When the Legislature flipped to Democratic leadership, legislation was passed to undo the law, which Sununu had theretofore defended as the will of the Legislature. It passed, but he then vetoed it. So much for legislative will.
That law has been in effect since, as the case opposing it has worked its way through the judicial system. But the state, under an injunction, can’t punish anyone who fails to meet the residency test and registers to vote.
In 2018, the GOP-led Legislature passed another effort to dissuade student voting. House Bill 1264 was posited as a very simple law: It would just align the language of the state’s laws regarding “domicile” and “residence” as is the case in other states.
Somehow, though, that simple tweak — and its simple aim to bypass previous court rulings that students who live here for nine months at a time are “domiciled” in the state, and therefore eligible to vote here — somehow became pretty complex.
First, after the Attorney General’s Office, having found HB 1264 was likely unconstitutional, abruptly changed course right before a key House hearing on the bill, now saying it would pass muster. No explanation has yet been given for the change of legal heart.
Meanwhile Sununu, cornered by a college-voting activist with a video camera, said it was a terrible bill and he’d never do anything to suppress the college vote. He indicated he hoped lawmakers would kill it, but darn those legislative leaders; they kept it alive and passed it anyway!
Since the attorney general couldn’t easily suss out the potential law’s constitutionality, Sununu asked the state Supreme Court for an opinion. In a 3-2 opinion, the court found the bill would not violate the state’s Constitution. So Sununu immediately signed it. Again, when the new Democratic-majority Legislature voted to overturn the law last spring, Sununu vetoed the measure.
But again, private interests have taken the matter to the courts. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire is leading this charge, which is before federal district Judge Joseph Laplante. Late last month, Laplante asked the N.H. Supreme Court to interpret the law’s effects before he rules on its federal constitutionality. He’s also said he won’t keep it from being in effect for the upcoming New Hampshire presidential primaries.
At this point, the state’s attorney general couldn’t easily determine the constitutionality of SB3, and HB 1264 has had to go before the Supreme Court not once, but twice — most recently sent there by a federal judge who was unable to ascertain its effects. State and local elections officials have also said they don’t even know what those effects are.
Maybe these attempts to “simplify” the state’s election laws haven’t been meant to simplify things at all. Instead, we believe, the aim all along has been to intimidate and confuse those least familiar with the state’s voting procedures and laws, in order to convince them it’s not worth it to bother voting.
If so, having taken brass knuckles to both young voters and the integrity of the state’s elections, the laws’ proponents are now standing before the courts, open hands raised, pretending they’ve done nothing wrong. The courts should check their tights carefully.