High court calls voter registration language confusing

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CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The New Hampshire Supreme Court on Friday upheld a lower court ruling that struck down a 2012 voter registration law, saying language that links voting to getting a driver's license is unconstitutional and could discourage some people from casting ballots.

The court, in a unanimous decision, said because the language is confusing and inaccurate, and because it could cause an otherwise qualified voter not to register to vote in New Hampshire, "the burden it imposes upon the fundamental right to vote is unreasonable."

Critics said the language would keep out-of-state college students, active members of the military, medical students in residency and others from voting.

The attorney general's office said the language clarifies that New Hampshire residents must abide by state laws requiring them to obtain driver's licenses and register their cars.

The law survived a veto by then-Gov. John Lynch, but the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union later challenged it in court on behalf of four out-of-state college students. They argued that the law would freeze out eligible voters and amount to a poll tax that forces people to pay the state to vote. The law's backers, however, argued that it simply clarified that people should vote where they live.

The students testified they found confusing the use of the words "domicile" and "resident" interchangeably in the law. They said it wasn't clear whether a citizen with a New Hampshire "domicile" who is not a state "resident" must obtain a New Hampshire driver's license and motor vehicle registration upon registering to vote. The court said it is undisputed that even though the students are not New Hampshire "residents," they are entitled to vote in New Hampshire because they are "domiciled" here.

The court noted the basic difference is that a "resident" has manifested an intent to remain in New Hampshire for the indefinite future, while a person who merely has a New Hampshire "domicile" has not manifested the same intent.

Earlier this year, the court declined to weigh in on a current bill in the Legislature tying the right to vote with registering a vehicle. It was not immediately clear what Friday's ruling might mean for the bill.

The Legislature also is considering a bill that would limit voting eligibility to people who have established their "domicile" in New Hampshire for voting purposes for at least 30 days before an election.

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