‘Residence’ voting bill would have an impact on New Hampshire businesses

New Hampshire may be on the brink of erecting a giant ‘stay out’ sign to students

It is well known that New Hampshire has a demographics problem. Our population is getting older, and our young people are leaving. This is a real problem for our universities and businesses. Which is why it is confounding that the NH Legislature is primed to pass House Bill 372 (“An Act relative to construction of the terms "resident," "inhabitant," "residence," and "residency") in January, a bill seemingly designed to dissuade young people from coming to New Hampshire for school.

These are students that our universities need for tuition purposes and future graduates that our businesses desperately need to fill the litany of open jobs in the state. Yet legislators will make it increasingly easy for soon-to-be college students to choose schools in Vermont or Maine, rather than New Hampshire, if they pass HB 372.

Currently, students attending school and living in New Hampshire can vote with an out-of-state driver’s license. This is standard practice nationally. By moving to and living in New Hampshire, students acquire domicile (meaning they are here more than they are not) and have a constitutional right to vote here, despite not meeting the stricter requirements for residency.

The distinction between domicile and residency is not just semantics, it’s financial.

Unlike residency, domicile does not come with DMV requirements. Think driver’s license, car registration and municipal and other administrative fees, which can quickly add up to hundreds of dollars. For cash-strapped students, these fees can be a heavy, if not insurmountable, burden.

If enacted, HB 372 would require students who dare exercise their constitutional right to vote to complete the DMV-imposed requirements for residents within 60 days of voting. For people with jobs and families in New Hampshire, those trips to the DMV and the resulting price tag are expected. However, for students who moved here to attend college, the price tag can quickly act as a deterrent to voting.

A recent amendment to the bill has made clear that this is precisely the Legislature’s intent. As one senator recently explained, the bill would protect residents from being “outvoted” by college students. If we keep telling the region’s most qualified youth that we don’t want them in New Hampshire, soon they will believe us.

New Hampshire businesses are directly impacted when a deterrent to voting starts to look and act like a deterrent to coming to New Hampshire.

College students are increasingly politically active, which often coincides with a strong commitment to voting. New Hampshire is an exciting state for such politically minded students. However, these same students could – and perhaps should – think twice about coming to the Granite State if we insist on demonizing them and imposing a steep poll tax on their constitutional right to vote.

Students who move to New Hampshire for college already pay a disproportionate amount of money to be here in the form of out-of-state tuition. And forcing them to pay the DMV fees that apply to “residents” does not change their out-of-state status for tuition purposes. Students are not allowed to switch from out-of-state to in-state for tuition purposes after they are enrolled. So under HB 372, if they dare exercise their constitutional right to vote in New Hampshire where they now live, they have to endure all the financial hardships of motor vehicle “residency” fees with none of the perks that residents actually obtain.

Our universities and colleges are already suffering from declining enrollment, and our businesses are in dire need of qualified workers. What our schools and businesses don’t need is a state legislature to put up a metaphorical “stay out” sign to students interested in coming here. New England is awash with incredible universities. Why do we want to give students any more reason to look elsewhere?

HB 372 has received national attention and rightfully been described as a poll tax, or post-election tax. It hurts our state’s reputation, our colleges and our businesses. If the legislature really wanted to lure more young people to the Granite State, they would protect voting rights and stop alienating students interested in coming here.

Jeanne Hruska is policy director for ACLU-New Hampshire.

Categories: Opinion