In a unanimous decision Friday morning, the New Hampshire Supreme Court struck down a 2017 voter registration law as unconstitutional.
“We conclude that SB 3 imposes unreasonable burdens on the right to vote. We also conclude that the State failed to carry its burden to demonstrate that SB 3 is substantially related to an important governmental objective,” the court wrote in its decision.
“Accordingly, we affirm the trial court’s determination that SB 3 violates Part I, Article 11 of the State Constitution.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling affirmed the findings from a similar ruling by Hillsborough Superior Court Judge David Anderson in April of 2020 that said the law has an “unequal impact” on some voters. Anderson’s ruling raised eyebrows for its reference to “13 Republican state senators” who sponsored the bill — an unnecessary invocation of partisanship.
The state Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling had the backing of two appointees of Gov. Chris Sununu and two of Democrat Gov. John Lynch.
“It’s disappointing that these commonsense reforms were not supported by our Supreme Court,” Sununu said Friday. “But we have to respect their decision and I encourage the Legislature to take the court’s opinion into account and continue working to make commonsense reforms to ensure the integrity of New Hampshire’s elections.”
Democrats praised the court’s ruling.
“Democrats opposed SB 3 from the moment it was introduced in the legislature because it was clearly an unconstitutional attempt to restrict the ability of qualified voters to vote. SB 3 added no security to our elections and unconstitutionally created a separate class of voters with different qualifications,” said Deputy House Minority Leader David Cote, the ranking member of the House Election Law Committee.
“The Supreme Court’s strong, unanimous ruling today, which concluded the state failed to ‘demonstrate that SB 3 is substantially related to an important governmental objective,’ confirms what Democrats said all along – there is no reasonable justification for enacting these unnecessary, confusing obstacles to the voter registration process.”
The ruling quoted from the New Hampshire Constitution: “All elections are to be free, and every inhabitant of the state of 18 years of age and upwards shall have an equal right to vote in any election. Every person shall be considered an inhabitant for the purposes of voting in the town, ward, or unincorporated place where he has his domicile.”
The “domicile” issue has been a bone of contention between the two parties for years, with the state supreme court in 2020 upholding a GOP-backed law doing away with the distinction between residency and domicile. “We conclude that a person with a New Hampshire ‘domicile’ under RSA 654:1 is necessarily a ‘resident’ under RSA 21:6,” the court wrote.
The purpose of SB 3 was to allow New Hampshire to keep its same-day voter registration system while still requiring people to prove they are residents of the precinct where they were voting. The court ruled that this process, in particular, the confusing forms it relies on (like the “Verifiable Action of Domicile” form), were so cumbersome and intimidating they violated the state constitution’s voting rights protections.
“We’ll just have to go back to the drawing board and get to work,” state Sen. Regina Birdsell (R-Birdsell) told NHJournal Friday. “If the forms are too complex, that’s just another problem to solve.” Birdsell is vice-chair of the Senate’s Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee and has been heavily involved in the election reform debate.
Rep. Barbara Griffin (R-Goffstown) is chair of the House Election Law Committee. “This decision is disappointing in light of the contrary finding from the Supreme Court of the United States in Brnovich v. DNC that the mere requirement of proving an individual has the constitutional standing to vote in an election is not unduly burdensome,” Griffin said Friday. “We will analyze the details of this case as we chart our path to ensuring our elections are fair, transparent, and honest.”
House Speaker Sherman Packard (R-Londonderry) committed the legislature to continue working on election integrity legislation.
“While this outcome is not ideal, it does give the Legislature a renewed sense of purpose as we work together to ensure New Hampshire’s elections remain fair with open transparency,” said Packard. “We will continue working on legislative reforms to strengthen and uphold the integrity of our elections.”