A proposal to change New Hampshire’s residency laws as a way to tighten voting eligibility drew hours of testimony, most of it in opposition, before the Senate Election Law and Internal Affairs Committee on Thursday.
The original venue for the hearing wasn't nearly large enough to hold everyone who wanted to testify. People packed into the Senate Election Law and Internal Affairs committee room like sardines, with more overflowing down the hall. At one point, a security officer was called in to keep the crowd under control.
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Initially, Sen. Regina Birdsell, the election law committee chair, tried to go forward with the hearing without relocating because it didn’t seem like an alternative space was available. But it wasn't long before her colleague, Democratic Senator Jeff Woodburn, objected.
“Madame Chair, I move that we recess until we find a room that will accommodate the people who came to a public hearing and want to be heard,” Woodburn said, pounding the table for emphasis as cheers erupted from activists around the room.
After some scrambling by Senate staffers, the hearing was eventually moved to a larger space.
The proposal at the center of it all, House Bill 1264, would remove just four words — “for the indefinite future” — from the law defining who counts as a New Hampshire resident. A separate but similarly controversial proposal, House Bill 372, also aims to remove the same words in the same statute.
Its supporters, including Secretary of State Bill Gardner, described it as an attempt to clear up confusion about who’s eligible to vote here and to bring New Hampshire’s laws more in line with other states. As the laws are written now, Gardner said New Hampshire is “the only state in the country where you do not have to be a resident to vote.”
“There is no other state in the country that has Election Day registration, no provisional ballots and no durational requirement,” Gardner told the committee. “There is no other state that has this. We are the only one.”
But Gardner and other supporters of House Bill 1264 were largely outnumbered over the course of the hearing by opponents who argued the bill would severely restrict voting rights of college students and other transient residents.
Many argued that removing the “indefinite” language from the residency definition would mean that people who do vote would be required to comply with other applicable laws governing New Hampshire residents, like getting an in-state driver’s license or vehicle registration.
“Under this bill, a college student or anyone else who does not have an indefinite intention to stay – that is to say, they know they will be leaving the state two, three, four years down the line – by voting now, they will be declaring their residency and will have to comply with these fees,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the ACLU of New Hampshire.
Dartmouth sophomore Michael Parsons was part of a group of students who traveled from Hanover to argue against the bill. Parsons and his peers, all of whom hailed from outside New Hampshire, said the bill would have a chilling effect on students like them.
“The message from Concord, and especially this room, to young people has a growing clarity: Despite the rent that we pay, despite the money that we funnel into our local main street economies, and despite the simple fact that we spend such a clear majority of our time here, we shouldn’t have the right to vote here,” Parsons said.
After the hearing wrapped up, Sen. Regina Birdsell issued a statement through the Senate press office responding to the concerns raised by Parsons and others who testified about the bill’s perceived impact on students.
“Democrats and out of state organizations have developed and are promoting an untrue narrative that is disenfranchising voters, specifically college students, in the Granite State,” Birdsell said. “Despite their claims, the bill heard today does not disenfranchise college students. Period.”