There’s been an effort underway for quite some time to strip out-of-state college students from the right to vote during their time in New Hampshire, or, at the very least, to dissuade them from exercising that right.
Former House Speaker Bill O’Brien, never one to mince words, made clear the intention during his time as one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state, promising a crackdown on “kids voting liberal, voting their feelings, with no life experience.” In other words, not voting his way.
What stood in the way of O’Brien and his fellow conservatives was largely a distinction peculiar to the Granite State: that under the state’s voting laws, anyone with a “domicile” in New Hampshire can legally vote. Most other states restrict that right to legal “residents.”
But what’s the difference between your residence and your domicile, one might ask?
Well, the state’s courts found a distinction, upon which they found worthy of pinning the right to vote.
Until last month, that is.
To backtrack a bit, the O’Brien-led Legislature, then featuring strong tea-party-driven GOP majorities in both houses, tried to strengthen its hold on power in a number of ways. It drew gerrymandered legislative and Executive Council districts following the 2010 census, in a literal after-hours, backroom meeting of only GOP members. It pushed through a photo ID requirement for voting — with the unsubtle provision that college IDs wouldn’t qualify.
And a law pushed through in 2012 was even more overt. It required those registering to vote to sign an affidavit stating they are subject to the state’s residency laws. That doesn’t sound like much on the surface, except again, New Hampshire law actually requires only that its voters be “domiciled” in the state, not residents. The difference the courts determined: Residency means intending to remain in the state more or less permanently, while domiciled means, basically, that this is where you live most of the time. So the law was overturned, and when Democrats took power in 2014, the photo ID law was undone, returning later with a change that allows college-issued IDs to count.
When Chris Sununu was elected governor in 2016, along with a GOP majority in each chamber, the Legislature again wasted no time taking aim at college students’ voting rights. They passed Senate Bill 3, which threatens new registrants with jail and a hefty fine if they can’t prove after voting that they’re residents of the state. That bill is still being contested in court.
And it was followed by House Bill 1264, which legislative leaders claimed was just bookkeeping to tighten the voting laws’ definitions. One might guess at this point what they opted to “tighten.” The law would effectively remove the idea of “domicile” by changing the definition to match that of “residence” in the voting law, so that any and all burdens of “residency” — such as the cost of registering a vehicle in New Hampshire — must be carried by those who wish to vote.
This bill, too, was contested, in federal court on federal constitutional grounds. Last year, the federal judge, finding the arguments confusing — imagine then how prospective voters feel, and that’s the point — sought an opinion from the state’s Supreme Court. He asked immediately whether the definition of residence and residency are the same as domicile, under HB 1264; whether a student domiciled in New Hampshire would necessarily be a resident under the law; whether claiming a domicile in the state makes someone subject to the state’s motor vehicle laws; and whether, then, college students living in-state for more than six months have to register their vehicles.
In a May 20 opinion, the justices said yes to all four (they punted on another question relating to out-of-state residence). Days later, the two Dartmouth College students suing the state over the law dropped their case.
That would seem to wrap things up on the domicile front. The peg used by the courts to allow young adults to vote in New Hampshire outside their “hometown” was loosened, then removed entirely.
Keep in mind, however, that even as conservatives used their temporary power to rewrite students’ rights, so could future Legislatures. In fact, the current Democratic-led Legislature passed a law a year ago to undo HB 1264; but it was vetoed by Sununu. Thus, the right to vote for some New Hampshire adults lies in the hands of both lawmakers, and voters.