Judge Schedules November Hearing On Controversial N.H. Voter Residency Law

Oct 30, 2019

Credit Ali Oshinskie / NHPR

Lawyers for the ACLU of New Hampshire and the state’s Department of Justice met Wednesday for the latest hearing in a federal court case over a Republican-backed law that alters the definition of who qualifies as a state resident. 

But no substantial decisions were issued at the hearing, and the judge instead ordered both sides to reconvene for another hearing in several weeks.

The ACLU is representing two Dartmouth College students who allege the new law would infringe on their right to vote.

In legal filings and in court, the ACLU has argued that the new residency law, HB 1264, amounts to a poll tax because the measure could require college students who choose to vote in New Hampshire to obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license at cost of approximately $50.

[Click here to find NHPR’s in-depth coverage of this story.]

The state’s attorneys, who are defending the residency law, counter that it has nothing to do with elections and is meant to streamline New Hampshire’s definition of residency with that of other states.

The question at the center of Wednesday’s hearing was more procedural than whether the law affects voting. Instead, Judge Joseph Laplante asked the two sides to weigh in on whether the case should be certified – or referred – to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

Laplante said there are several unresolved factual questions about what the residency law would mean in practice, and it would be more appropriate for the state court to clear those up before he begins to assess whether the law is constitutional.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Laplante agreed with the parties that further legal briefs are necessary before he hears oral arguments on an injunction. Those arguments will now take place in late November, though Laplante said it was his intention to issue a decision “well before the Primary” on whether the law’s main provisions will be put on hold.

Attorneys for the ACLU told Laplante that the law, which was signed by Gov. Chris Sununu after initially saying he opposed the measure, is creating confusion for town clerks about what information they need to provide new registered voters.

“No one will give the voters a straight answer,” said Henry Klementowicz, an ACLU staff attorney.

Anthony Galdieri, an assistant attorney general, countered that “all of the obligations of residency apply” when someone claims to live in the state, and that obtaining a driver’s license is simply one of them. 

“That isn’t confusing,” he said.

The attorney general’s office and other state officials have not provided direct answers on this issue when asked separately by NHPR about the relationship between the new residency law, voting and vehicle licensing. 

Earlier this year, the New Hampshire Supreme Court, in a 3-2 ruling, declared HB 1264 constitutional, with the majority saying it wouldn’t impose a substantial burden on new residents.