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ACLU, N.H. Democratic Party Withdraw Lawsuit Against New State Residency Law

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The American Civil Liberties Union and the New Hampshire Democratic Party are withdrawing a federal lawsuit against a new state residency law that, they argued, would infringe on voting rights. 

In a statement provided to NHPR, the ACLU said further legal action wasn’t needed in light of a New Hampshire Supreme Court ruling earlier this week that clarified the effects of the new residency law.

“We have said since the beginning that driver’s licensing and voting should not be linked, and after this decision, we have come to the decision that it is no longer necessary to pursue this case any further,” said Henry Klementowicz, staff attorney at the ACLU of New Hampshire.

The residency law in question passed under Republican majorities in the New Hampshire Legislature in 2018. It did not directly alter any voting statutes, but it changed the definition of what it means to claim residency in New Hampshire — eliminating the distinction between those who live in the state full-time, and those who intend to remain “for the indefinite future.”

Initially, the ACLU and the Democrats argued that this change would hinder the voting rights of those who live here part-time — particularly college students — because it bred confusion around the connection between voting and vehicle licensing.

Both sides of the case, including the state officials defending the revised residency law, agreed that no one is required to get a New Hampshire drivers license or car registration before casting a ballot. That has been a longstanding provision of the state’s voting rules and was not changed by the new residency definition.

But the two sides disagreed on whether the new law would create additional licensing requirements for temporary residents, including out-of-state college students, who choose to vote in New Hampshire. State officials argued that the change simply clarified existing residency requirements that have long been enshrined in state law.

Because of this and other disagreements on the new residency law's practical effects, the federal judge overseeing the court case asked the New Hampshire Supreme Court to step in and clarify how it works.

The state court ruling, issued Wednesday, affirmed that anyone, including college students, who lives in the state “for more than six months in any year must register any of their motor vehicles that are principally used in connection with their New Hampshire abode.” In the same ruling, the court said that a person does not need a New Hampshire license or car registration in order to vote.

Supporters of the residency law, including Gov. Chris Sununu and other Republicans lawmakers who backed its passage through the State House, cast the move to withdraw the lawsuit as vindication.

"Today’s agreement to dismiss the challenge to HB 1264 is welcome news for New Hampshire voters," Sununu said in a statement. "Our laws will now truly guarantee an equal right to vote and align New Hampshire with virtually every other state."

State Sens. Regina Birdsell of Hampstead and Jim Gray of Rochester, in a joint statement, characterized the move as "a win for all New Hampshire voters."

"Every time we go to vote Granite Staters should have the confidence they are voting in a clean and fair election," the senators said. "This legislation brings transparency and accountability to the election process and ensures every person who votes in New Hampshire is following the laws of our great state."

Casey is a Senior News Editor for NHPR. You can contact her with questions or feedback at cmcdermott@nhpr.org.

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