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Sununu on video opposing GOP election reform law

State House Bureau

December 11. 2017 8:41PM
Gov. Chris Sununu tells an activist he is opposed a bill that changes the definition of residency, and states that “A person must be a resident of New Hampshire to vote or hold office in New Hampshire.” (YouTube)

CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu became a YouTube celebrity over the weekend for brief comments he made in opposition to the latest Republican-backed election reform law working its way through the state Legislature.

Sununu in the video tells a young activist that he is opposed to HB 372, a bill that changes the definition of residency, and states that “A person must be a resident of New Hampshire to vote or hold office in New Hampshire.”

Tightening up residency standards for voting has been a big priority for the Republican majority in the State House, and Sununu has in the past alluded to out-of-state voters illegally casting ballots in New Hampshire.

So supporters of HB 372 in the House and Senate were surprised to see the video in which Sununu expresses his adamant opposition to the bill. The video was widely distributed by the state Democratic Party, the N.H. Campaign for Voting Rights and Vote America-N.H., among others.

It opens with a young man by the name of Ben Kremer approaching Sununu during a Friday night event at the Islamic Society of N.H. mosque on Willow Street in Manchester, where the governor held a meet and greet with members of the mosque, according to Sununu spokesman Ben Vihstadt.

“I found out yesterday about HB 372,” Kremer says.

“What’s that one?” Sununu asks.

Kremer starts to reply: “It’s a bill that would require out of state students that are residing in New Hampshire currently to have a New Hampshire drivers license and ...”

Before he can finish, Sununu gestures for effect and interrupts with a strong, “No.”

“I hate it,” says the governor. “I know what you’re talking about.”

“That is great to hear,” says Kremer.

“I’m not a fan,” says Sununu. “I’m hoping that the legislature kills it. I’m not a fan at all.”

Kremer presses for an even more definitive answer. “Just for my personal security, could I get a ‘yes or no’ answer from you. If this bill ever reaches your desk or any bill similar to it that suppresses the student vote, will you say ‘no’ to it.”

Sununu is unequivocal: “I will never support anything that suppresses the student vote. End of story.”

The video can be viewed below:

Supporters disappointed

The governor was asked to clarify that statement on Monday but declined. Supporters of the bill hope that once they have a chance to fully brief Sununu on the measure, he will change his mind.

“I’m scheduled to have a meeting with him later this week, and I’m hoping that once we give him the accurate information, that he will think more on it,” said state Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead.

Birdsell has taken the lead in the Senate on election reform as the main sponsor of SB 3, which was signed into law by Sununu earlier in the year and immediately subjected to a court challenge by the state Democratic Party and the League of Women Voters.

SB 3 is aimed at making sure voters prove they have a New Hampshire domicile, before or soon after voting. HB 372 sets the stage for a residency standard. While domicile is generally understood to be the place you hang your hat for now, residency is supposed to be the place you call home.

Rep. David Bates, R-Windham, is the original sponsor of HB 372, which passed the House 188-163 earlier this year, but was referred to the Election Law Committee in the Senate. The Senate committee voted 3-2 along party lines on Nov. 30 to move the bill to the full Senate for a vote in January, with an amendment that includes a new purpose statement.

Then it would go off to the governor, where its fate now appears uncertain.

Bates says the bill was misrepresented by the young man in the video, and it will not require individuals to have a N.H. driver’s license to vote.

“I watched the video and as I expected, the governor did not know what HB 372 was,” says Bates. “I expect he hasn’t been adequately briefed about the purpose and effect of this bill, and if he spoke with me about it, I would have no difficulty changing his mind about it.”

New definitions

There is some disagreement among lawmakers about exactly what HB 372 will accomplish. Bates says all the law does is change the definition of residency, so that future legislation tying residency to voting will survive the inevitable court challenges.

Birdsell believes that making the word “residency” synonymous with “domicile” in New Hampshire law will have an immediate effect, even without additional legislation.

“It’s going to equate domicile with residence, much like Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont have,” she said. “Each have equated domicile with residency.”

By the act of voting, individuals would in effect declare themselves New Hampshire residents, which would require them to register their vehicle in the state and obtain a state driver’s license within 60 days.

“It’s very concerning and abundantly clear that the intent of the bill is to impose motor vehicle fee obligations on individuals who vote,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the NH-ACLU.

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