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GOP Lawmaker: Domicile Bill Undergoing Some Revision in Response to Concerns

Michael Brindley for NHPR

A Senate bill that would alter the definition of “domicile” for voting purposes has caused an outcry among Democrats and others who claim it unnecessarily complicates the voting process and would suppress the vote among certain groups, including college students.

At a recent packed hearing, the vast majority were in opposition to the proposed changes.

Republican State Senator Regina Birdsell, lead sponsor of the bill, says her intention is not to exclude anyone. 

"This is my attempt to try and tighten up some of the domicile language in our law so that we don't have a problem with our constituents looking at the integrity of our voting," she said.

Birdsell's bill has received some key support.  Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan, speaking on The Exchange, backs the bill, though he acknowledged there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the state.  

"But there is a belief among voters out there, some voters, that it does exist. And what is important about elections is that people have to believe that there's integrity in the process and their vote actually counts and the results at the end of the election are accurate. And to the extent that there's even a perception problem out there that that does not occur, people lose faith in the election process. So we have to be just as concerned about the perception as we do about the reality." 

Scanlan said he agrees with some of the proposal's opponents that some of the language associated with an affidavit form could be clarified. Some critics have gone so far as to liken it to a literacy test, given its complexity and length. 

Birdsell said she is weighing such concerns. Among the most controversial provisions -- allowing police in certain instances to help acquire documentation verifying a person's domicile.  

"I'm hoping to get support," she said. "I'm trying to tweak it to satisfy some of the concerns that I heard last Tuesday and I would really love to have support in the Senate and hopefully go forward to the House." 

Birdsell said she hopes to complete those revisions by this Friday.

Here's how N.H. law currently defines domicile: 

 An inhabitant's domicile for voting purposes is that one place where a person, more than any other place, has established a physical presence and manifests an intent to maintain a single continuous presence for domestic, social, and civil purposes relevant to participating in democratic self-government.  A person has the right to change domicile at any time, however a mere intention to change domicile in the future does not, of itself, terminate an established domicile before the person actually moves.  

If that sounds  confusing -- what's the difference between domicile and residency, for instance --  NHPR's Casey McDermott explains:  

"People can have more than one residence but you can only have one domicile particularly for voting purposes. So, while someone might have a home in New Hampshire, a home in Florida, a home in another state or maybe someone -- as we hear a lot regarding college students -- maybe you have someone coming to New Hampshire from Michigan and they live in Michigan but they also live in New Hampshire, they can only claim one of those places as domicile for voting purposes.... 

...As New Hampshire's law is written right now, someone's domicile for voting purposes is that one place where, more than any other place, that person has established a physical presence and an intent to maintain their presence there regarding civic purposes, more than anywhere else.  It can be in some ways fluid. It could be a question of where someone considers their home more than any other as opposed to where they physically spend the most time."

The Birdsell bill adds another layer to the definition of domicile for voting purposes, McDermott said. "This is an effort to establish that not only is someone here, present, and considers New Hampshire their domicile for voting purposes on election day, but also they have an intent to stay in New Hampshire beyond the election."

That change reflects concerns voiced mainly by Republicans about campaign workers moving to the state for an election and then leaving soon afterwards, or about college students who don't necessarily plan to stay in New Hampshire. 

Senator Birdsell said her bill addresses concerns among her constituents about the integrity of the election system. "There is a perception out there, right or wrong, that there are issues with our elections' integrity," she said.  

"In a state where you have lower-tier state reps and maybe county races that are won by one or two votes -- we had a senate race won by only eight votes -- if one of our citizens' votes are disenfranchised because of that one person that was prosecuted, I think it's a problem."

Democratic State Senator Jeff Woodburn did not deny there's room for tightening up the state's definition of domicile. But, he said, the onus is on those who attempt to do so.

"This has been a definition we've used for some 200 years... But let's not fool ourselves. This is all about a national trend to discourage and to depress voters," he said, by adding unnecessary bureaucracy that creates long lines at the polls and creates confusion among some voters. 

Woodburn also said he has faith in current voting laws.  "I think people don't lie. I trust people by and large," he said. Alleged instances of fraud are oftentimes found to be mere errors rather than incidents of malicious intent, he said.  He said he'd be open to changes, "if there are reasonable efforts to try to ensure that certain circumstances can be addressed, very specifically, but (not) if it's an effort to harass and discourage voters, which this clearly is."

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