NH voting residency legislation may affect student tuition

Posted Oct. 23, 2011, at 2 p.m.
Maine Secretary of State Charles Summers
AP Photo by Robert F. Bukaty
Maine Secretary of State Charles Summers

CONCORD, N.H. — Legislation that would require residency for people who register to vote in New Hampshire could affect millions of dollars in nonresident tuition that students pay to the state’s public colleges.

Two proposed law changes aren’t aimed at college students, said House Election Law Chairman David Bates, a Windham Republican. He said he believes anyone who registers to vote in New Hampshire should be a resident and that voters should deal honestly with the ramifications of claiming residency in another state for driving, insurance or other purposes.

One of the bills will resurrect a measure Democratic Gov. John Lynch vetoed five years ago. The bill ties the motor vehicle laws to the right to vote by requiring anyone who votes in the state to get a New Hampshire driver’s license and register vehicles in the state.

The other would reverse a Democrat-sponsored law that depends on how New Hampshire defines the people who live there.

That law says that claiming domicile for voting purposes does not establish the person’s voting address as his legal residence for other purposes. Bates would make the voting address the legal residence and that is what could affect students’ status and therefore their tuition rates, according to Paul Twomey, a lawyer who works on voting issues.

“Domicile and residence are different for good reasons,” he said. “Domicile is a voting phrase.”

Similar student residency issues have arisen in neighboring Maine, where Secretary of State Charlie Summers sent letters to students at four universities this fall telling them they need to register their vehicles in Maine and get Maine driver’s licenses if they want to continue voting in the state.

Summers’ letter drew a harsh response from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and other advocacy groups, which accused him of violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by allegedly intimidating student voters. The issue arose amid Maine’s referendum campaign to restore Election Day voter registration in the state.

Domicile is a legal term used to establish voting rights. It is the place where a person has established a physical presence and intent to maintain a presence in the future regardless of legal residency. New Hampshire law allows voting by residents who claim domicile in the state; people living under bridges can vote if they claim that as their domicile, said Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan.

“Domicile is not easily defined when you get down to specific details. It is a place where a person spends most of their time; it is where they engage in civic activities; it is where they send their kids to school,” he said.

For New Hampshire colleges and their students, the bills could mean big changes in tuition charges.

As in other states, New Hampshire’s public colleges rely on out-of-state tuition to subsidize in-state tuition. If a large number of nonresident students voted in New Hampshire and were deemed residents, they would begin paying in-state rates, and that loss of revenue could lead to increases in the rates charged in-state students.

For example, the University of New Hampshire has 4,800 nonresident students who pay about $14,000 more in annual tuition than residents, said Mark Rubinstein, vice president of student and academic services. He said he did not know whether Bates’ proposal would override the university system’s existing legal authority to determine residency based on a number of factors.

But domicile does not mean the voter has to be a state resident and comply with such requirements as getting a New Hampshire driver’s license.

“To me that is an imaginary distinction that shouldn’t exist,” said Bates. “I live here or I don’t.”

But the Constitution guarantees citizens the right to vote and states can’t require voters to get a driver’s license or be penalized in some way, Twomey said.

“You can’t put a price on voting,” he said.

In his 2006 veto message, Lynch pointed out that the bill to require voters to register their cars and get driver’s licenses in New Hampshire would make it more difficult for young voters and new residents to vote. Lynch also noted that people who spend part of the year outside of New Hampshire and register vehicles in other states could face problems.

Bates acknowledges the registration issue may need to be looked at since vehicles can be registered in more than one state. Drivers can only have one license, however, he said.

Bates said requiring voters to be legal residents is a matter of principle for him.

“You shouldn’t be able to say you are domiciled here for voting purposes and not a, b, c and d,” he said.

State Rep. David Pierce, a Democrat from Hanover, sponsored the law that Bates wants to reverse in order to link voting and residency. He accused Republicans of trying to disenfranchise students, a group that traditionally is seen as more likely to vote for Democrats.

“What they’re trying to do is get at students,” he said.

Republicans argue students have no stake in the community and should vote in their home states. Past attempts to restrict nonresident students from voting have raised concerns that the students might be hurt financially, such as losing scholarships.

The House killed a Republican-sponsored bill this year that would have barred students from voting in New Hampshire college towns unless they lived there before enrolling. The issue is expected to be brought back next year.

Pierce said Republicans have been trying for years to block students from voting in New Hampshire — a charge Bates denies.

“This is not targeting anybody,” Bates said.

Bates did not know if making nonresident students who vote residents would change their legal status for tuition purposes as Twomey claims, but Bates said that did not matter.

“My concern is protecting the integrity of voting in New Hampshire,” he said.

Associated Press writer Glenn Adams in Augusta, Maine, contributed to this report.

 

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