Secretary of State and DMV Issue New Guidance On Voting and Vehicle Licensing

Dec 18, 2019

People who register to vote in New Hampshire and plan to drive here will have to obtain an in-state drivers license within 60 days of registering, if not sooner, according to guidance issued by state agencies who enforce elections administration and driving laws. 

The new guidance, which comes amid an ongoing court case over Republican-backed changes to the state’s residency standards, is the most detailed explanation yet from state officials of what they consider the law’s impacts to be. It also ties together aspects of New Hampshire’s election laws and motor vehicle regulations more clearly than state officials had previously indicated.

(Read the full memo here.)

“Anyone registering to vote in New Hampshire is indicating that he or she has established a domicile/residence here,” the memo reads. “Once one establishes domicile/residence in New Hampshire, New Hampshire law requires that person to take certain actions. Under the motor vehicle code, a person has 60 days upon establishing domicile/residence to obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license, if they drive here, and to register a vehicle, if they own a vehicle in the state.”

The New Hampshire Secretary of State, Attorney General’s Office and Department of Safety (which oversees the Division of Motor Vehicles) sent the document to local pollworkers Wednesday morning, headlined “Frequently Asked Questions About Establishing a Domicile/Residence in New Hampshire.”

The FAQ memo begins with an overview of what it means to establish “domicile” or “residence” in New Hampshire — which now mean the same thing, as a result of a change in residency standards that took effect earlier this year. It goes on to address a series of questions about the relationship between establishing residency in New Hampshire, registering to vote and complying with motor vehicle requirements.

The document clearly states that a New Hampshire drivers’ license is not required in order to vote here. But, depending on someone’s car ownership or driving habits, a person who registers to vote in New Hampshire might have to obtain an in-state registration or license after the fact. Here’s what the guidance says about voting and getting a driver’s license:

Q: I have registered to vote in New Hampshire, and I have an out-of-state driver’s license, but I do not drive here. Do I need to do anything? 

A. No. Anyone registering to vote in New Hampshire is indicating that he or she has established a domicile/residence here. A person who establishes a domicile/residence in New Hampshire and does not drive in New Hampshire is not required to obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license. 

Q: I have registered to vote in New Hampshire, but I have an out-of-state driver’s license and I drive here. What should I do?
A: Anyone registering to vote in New Hampshire is indicating that he or she has established a domicile/residence here. Once one establishes domicile/residence in New Hampshire, New Hampshire law requires that person to take certain actions. Under the motor vehicle code, a person has 60 days upon establishing domicile/residence to obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license, if they drive here, and to register a vehicle, if they own a vehicle in the state.

And here’s what it says about voting and registering a vehicle:

Q. If I establish a domicile/residence in New Hampshire and own a vehicle used in New Hampshire, do I have to register that vehicle?
A. Yes. A person who establishes domicile/residence in New Hampshire and owns a vehicle used in New Hampshire must register the vehicle in New Hampshire within 60 days of establishing his or her domicile/residence. RSA 261:45. You may register your vehicle with your local town or city officials. The fee for vehicle registration is in part for the use of the town or city where the owner resides. See: RSA 261:153; RSA 261:165. These funds are available to help cover the costs of maintaining roads. Registering a car you own and use in New Hampshire, in part, is paying your share of road maintenance costs.

State attorneys had signaled that such a document was in the works as part of the ongoing lawsuit challenging changes to the state’s residency standards, though the document does not explicitly address either that lawsuit or the underlying policy change that prompted it, referred to as House Bill 1264.

Wednesday’s guidance also comes more than a year after the law was passed and nearly six months after it took effect. Each of the state agencies who authored the document previously declined to discuss the same issues addressed in today’s memo when asked for clarification by NHPR. In several instances, they denied that the new law affected voting at all.

The ACLU of New Hampshire, which is suing the state over the new residency standards, said the new document “confirms the intent of House Bill 1264 to tie registering to vote to the imposition of motor vehicle fees.”

“This is a poll tax and voter suppression,” said Gilles Bissonnette, ACLU-NH Legal Director. “It is wrong and unconstitutional, and we will continue to fight this law in court.”

Bissonnette also argued that the state’s guidance on motor vehicle fees is “inaccurate,” because it doesn’t address a provision in state law that exempts someone from certain registration requirements if they continue to claim “residence in any other state for any purpose.”

The judge overseeing the federal court case over the residency law has asked the New Hampshire State Supreme Court to clarify how that exemption would affect the state’s enforcement. It is unclear when the state court will weigh in on this and several additional policy applications it has been asked to clarify, but lawyers on both sides of the case requested it move quickly.

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