CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A federal judge in New Hampshire denied a request Wednesday that would have blocked a new state law requiring voters to be full-fledged residents from being enforced for the first-in-the-nation presidential primary in February.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire sued the secretary of state and attorney general over the law on behalf of two Dartmouth College students. The law, which took effect in July, ended the state’s distinction between “residency” and “domicile.”
Before the law took effect, New Hampshire was the only state that didn’t require residency to vote. Though it doesn’t change the process of registering to vote, it effectively makes out-of-state college students who vote in New Hampshire subject to residency requirements, such as obtaining drivers’ licenses and registering cars.
The ACLU said the law created confusion while the state said any confusion is “self-created and sustained.” It argued that the requirement to get a license is triggered by when a person establishes residency, which may or may not be on the day he or she registers to vote.
Democrats, including many of the presidential candidates campaigning in New Hampshire, said the new law amounts to voter suppression by essentially imposing a “poll tax” in the form of license and vehicle registration fees. But Republicans and other supporters of the law said it was in line with residency requirements in other states, including many of the critics’ home states.
U.S. District Judge Joseph LaPlante ruled Wednesday the plaintiffs didn’t prove their claims, saying they produced no witnesses stating that the confusion led them to decide not to register to vote. “Indeed, all of the witnesses who testified that they currently have out-of-state licenses also testified that they are registered to vote in New Hampshire,” LaPlante wrote.
He also said that state officials, although slow to provide detailed guidance on the law, did issue a recent letter on the state’s interpretation.
However, LaPlante himself had questions about how the law could interact with the state’s motor vehicle code and election rules. In a separate order Wednesday, he submitted five questions to the New Hampshire Supreme Court for review.
“There are potentially determinative issues of New Hampshire law in this case,” LaPlante wrote, adding that the answers “could result in one or more interpretations of the enforcement regime that do not implicate the federal constitutional right to vote in any way.”
An ACLU attorney said it will continue to fight the case. “Every eligible voter has the right to vote without confusion, without fear, and without the thought that maybe it would be easier if they vote at all,” Henry Klementowicz said in a statement. “Despite evidence that college students, young people, town clerks, and political campaigns are confused about what this law means, the court did not eliminate this confusion today.”
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