In June 2012, the New Hampshire legislature, overriding Governor John Lynch’s veto, passed Senate Bill 318, which added language to New Hampshire’s voter registration form. The added language is far from innocuous. This language infringes upon the voting rights of a segment of New Hampshire citizens—college students in particular—that live in New Hampshire, pay money to the state, and engage in community activities here. Simply put, this language threatens the fundamental principle that a person is constitutionally entitled to vote in New Hampshire if that person calls this state his or her “home.”
In August 2012, the NHCLU filed a lawsuit challenging the bill’s added voter registration form language. The following month, the Strafford County Superior Court preliminarily concluded that the added language “does not pass constitutional muster” and prevented the State from using this language. On March 14, 2014, the NHCLU filed a motion asking the Superior Court to make its September 2012 decision permanent.
What exactly does Senate Bill 318 do? It requires those registering to vote to sign an affidavit agreeing that they are subject to the state’s residency laws—including laws mandating them to obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license and to register their vehicle in New Hampshire. In short, the registration form attempts to impose onerous and financially burdensome residency requirements as a condition for voting.
But, in order to vote in New Hampshire, a voter need not actually meet the definition of a New Hampshire “resident.” (A “resident” is a person that not only has a physical presence here, but also has a current intent to stay in this state “for the indefinite future.”) Instead, to vote in New Hampshire, one need only be “domiciled” here.
What does it mean to be “domiciled” in New Hampshire for voting purposes? It means that a voter must, more than any other place, have “established a physical presence” in New Hampshire and manifest “an intent to maintain a single continuous presence” in New Hampshire “for domestic, social, and civil purposes relevant to participating in democratic self-government.” RSA 654:1, I. It does not mean that anyone can vote in New Hampshire simply if they want to or simply because they are in this state on election day. In other words, one is domiciled in New Hampshire for voting purposes if that person has a physical presence here and thinks of this state as “home.”
The distinction between “residency” and “domicile” for voting purpose is important because a system that only allows “residents”—i.e., those with an intention to stay in New Hampshire “for the indefinite future”—to vote would hinge a person’s right to vote on his or her future plans, not on whether the person currently lives in New Hampshire and is a functioning member of our state’s community.
For example, imposing such a “residency” condition on the right to vote would not only disenfranchise many college students who live in New Hampshire, but would also disenfranchise a newly-arrived executive with a firm intention to retire to his Florida cottage at age 65 and a hospital resident with a career plan requiring her to spend a full three years in New Hampshire to complete her medical training. These individuals who live in New Hampshire possess no less knowledge, intelligence, or commitment to this state than those New Hampshire citizens who are perhaps less precise with their planning and, thus, intend to stay here indefinitely.
Unfortunately, the intent of many legislators who supported Senate Bill 318 was to limit the voting rights of New Hampshire college students who grew up outside the state. But those college students who call this state “home” contribute to our state’s community just as much as any of us. These students live and go to school in New Hampshire (many of whom have been doing so full time for years), pay tuition dollars here, and engage in commerce and community activities here. And courts have rejected efforts to disenfranchise them, concluding instead that these students have a constitutional right to vote here, like all of us, in the place where they live more than any other place.
As one court explained, any requirement that one must be a “resident” of New Hampshire in order to vote would force many college students “who are in every meaningful sense members of New Hampshire political communities to vote in communities elsewhere which they have long departed and with whose affairs they are no longer concerned, if indeed the former community still recognizes the right.”
Our case is simple: New Hampshire citizens, including college students, have a right to vote where they live. Period.