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Ahead of N.H. primary, new voter residency requirements leads to confusion on campus

Brian Rogers of NextGen New Hampshire reached out to University of New Hampshire students earlier this semester.
Brian Rogers of NextGen New Hampshire reached out to University of New Hampshire students earlier this semester.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

With New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary a bit more than four months away, Democrats are battling a new state law in federal court, alleging it amounts to a poll tax meant to disenfranchise out-of-state college students by forcing them to get in-state driver’s licenses and pay the $50 fee.

The state’s lawyers argue that registering to vote is free and the new law won’t change the voting process.

The case is likely to go to trial in January 2020, and the subsequent ruling will ripple through hundreds of out-of-state students in the Granite State — a place where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by less than 3,000 votes.


Democrats and voting rights groups say the law has disenfranchised college students who come from out of state, calling it a burdensome voting fee.

It “has the purpose and effect of requiring New Hampshire voters, including Plaintiffs, to pay significant fees to domesticate driver’s licenses and car registrations in New Hampshire, simply because they register to vote,” part of the lawsuit alleges. “As a result, [it] operates as an unconstitutional poll tax.”

Republicans have championed the measure, which was signed into law by GOP Governor Chris Sununu and took effect July 1st. They say it instills voter integrity — and hint, that in some cases, it could bring more victories.

“I think in New Hampshire in 2020, President Donald Trump is going to win,” Corey Lewandowski, the president’s former campaign manager who is also considering a run for Senate in the state, told WMUR in August, before citing the change in the law, “which we appreciate.”

For years, college students originally from out of state have been able to vote in New Hampshire as long as they were “domiciled” there. That’s a term that, under state law, indicated they lived in the state and intended to stay “for the indefinite future.” But in the wake of Trump’s narrow 2016 loss in the state, the GOP passed a law aimed at tightening those rules by eliminating any distinction between a state resident and someone who claimed their domicile was in New Hampshire, legally, a lower level of connection to the state.


The new law requires voters to prove they are New Hampshire residents, which could lead to other residency requirements like obtaining local driver’s licenses and registering their cars, within 60 days of casting a ballot.

Owning a car is not a requirement for voting, but voting rights activists argue obtaining an in-state driver’s license might be required if individuals have an out-of-state license already.

For students who don’t own a car or have a driver’s license, the law is unlikely to have an effect. But many do and worry about the implications of having Granite State residency.

Caterina Hyneman, a Dartmouth College junior from Redondo Beach, Calif., said she won’t be voting in New Hampshire due in part to the new law.

“I would have been really interested in voting in the New Hampshire primary . . . but that bill made it harder for me to vote and it may impact future grants or future in-state tuition if I choose to go to grad school” in California, said Hyneman.

As students grapple with the choice of voting in their original home states or in New Hampshire, the new law has prompted widespread confusion over who can cast ballots, as Democrats, Republicans, and state agencies have offered different interpretations on the law’s impact.


Secretary of State William Gardner, New Hampshire’s top elections official, said he is confident that changes to the law will have no effect on who can vote.

“It doesn’t change any of the process,” he said. “This did not affect anything on the election law.”

A spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Motor Vehicles declined to comment on whether the new law will change anything there.

Poll workers are also confused about how to carry out this new law, as state officials have not been providing clear directions to local election officials, according to New Hampshire Public Radio.

The plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit are the state Democratic Party and two Dartmouth College students who wish to vote in New Hampshire but don’t intend to stay after graduation. They allege that the new law would require them to obtain New Hampshire driver’s license — what they call an unnecessary and unconstitutional expense.

Under the old law, part of the issue is that “domiciled” is tricky to define, especially for college students, according to James Gardner, a law professor at the University of Buffalo who specializes in elections.

“Domicile under the US Constitution is largely a question of mental state,” he said, noting that many college students don’t know what the future holds.

Erin Lynch, a 21-year-old senior at Keene State College, said while she’s thinking of staying in New Hampshire after college, a lot of students are more unsure of where they want to end up.


“I’m probably going to pay the cost to have a registered New Hampshire car but for a lot of students,” she said, “if there’s any little inconvenience they’re not going to go out of their way” to vote.

Aidan Ryan can be reached at aidan.ryan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.