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League of Women Voters Keeps Tabs on Voting Rights in Twin States

  • Liz Tentarelli, president of the New Hampshire League of Women Voters, of Newbury, N.H., speaks before the New Hampshire Senate Election Law and Internal Affairs Committee during a hearing on a bill that would establish an independent commission to re-draw voting districts at the Legislative Office Building in Concord, N.H., Tuesday, February 15, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Representatives Andrew White, D-Lebanon, left, Yvonne Dean-Bailey, R-Northwood, right, and Marjorie Porter, D-Hillsborough, front left, listen to testimony from N.H. Deputy Secretery of State David Scanlan during a hearing of the House Election Law committee in the Legislative Office Building in Concord, N.H., Tuesday, February 15, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Deputy Secretery of State David Scanlan take questions from a member of the House Election Law Committee during a hearing at the Legislative Office Building in Concord, N.H., Tuesday, February 15, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Liz Tentarelli, president of the New Hampshire League of Women Voters, of Newbury, N.H., right, heads to lunch with League member Sylvia Gale, of Nashua, left, after attending hearings on proposed changes to election law in the New Hampshire legislature in Concord, N.H. Tuesday, February 14, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, March 03, 2017

At 9 in the morning on Valentine’s Day, Liz Tentarelli, the president of the League of Women Voters of New Hampshire, sat in a small hearing room on the ground floor of the Legislative Office Building in Concord.

Tentarelli was one of perhaps 10 people at a Senate Election Law and Internal Affairs Committee public hearing on the issues of online voter registration (Senate Bill 194) and establishing an independent redistricting commission (SB 107).

Tentarelli, who has been president of the New Hampshire League for six years, was there to testify on the League’s support of both bills. Like other women who work for the League at the state level, she is not paid for her time and works as a volunteer.

The League of Women Voters prides itself on being a non-partisan organization, paying attention to a handful of key issues, but supporting no candidate or party.

In recent years, at least in New Hampshire, the League has struggled to reach younger voters. An Upper Valley chapter, which began in 1938, closed in 2015 because the older membership retired.

“We tried a Facebook page but there wasn’t stuff on there that attracted younger people. You have to find ways to engage younger people,” Tentarelli said.

However, the current political scene, with charges of voter fraud, and concerns about voter suppression, has renewed public interest in the League, which pays special attention to voting rights.

“The notion that my vote doesn’t count is often expressed,” Tentarelli said, “but that makes no sense when you look at this last (presidential) election and how close it was.”

The national League, founded in 1920, came out of the decades-long struggle to gain women the right to vote, which was ratified the same year in the 19th amendment to the Constitution.

After that was secured, the League, Tentarelli said, “saw that the job ahead of them was to help newly enfranchised women use their chance to vote.”

Recently the national League and its state chapters have focused attention more broadly on enfranchisement and redistricting.

Election laws are just some of the issues in which the League takes an active interest. Others include human trafficking, immigration, incarcerated women, agriculture and education. The League studies such issues in depth and then releases position papers on them.

But the League is perhaps best known for the work it does to educate voters across the country, through direct outreach and its website.

Among the issues on which the League educates voters are these: the basics of voter registration; voter ID requirements; election information about absentee ballots; how bills become law; and how to register and vote if you are a college student away from your home state.

On the national level, Tentarelli added, the League is making a big push to attract both younger women and men (despite the League’s name, men are included) who could take the organization into the future.

There are still active League members in the Upper Valley, said Ellen Blumberg, a member who lives in Thetford. Vermont doesn’t face the same voting restrictions that New Hampshire does, Blumberg noted. “It’s very easy to register and be part of the system,” she said.

There is some anecdotal evidence, at least in New Hampshire, that the results of the 2016 presidential election have led to renewed interest in the activities of the League.

Since December, Tentarelli said, nearly 40 people have joined the state League. “It’s been significant, and they’re still coming in.”

Sylvia Gale, a Nashua resident, recalled putting on Facebook in the summer of 2015 a query about whether people in the area would be interested in resurrecting a League group that had shut down.

“Within two hours we had 57 hits,” she said in a phone interview.

The Nashua group meets monthly, and focuses on voter education, from handing out flyers at public events to sponsoring forums and debates prior to municipal elections. It also ensures that pamphlets and flyers are translated into French, Spanish and Portuguese, given the city’s multi-lingual population.

“Party isn’t an issue,” Gale said. “Our goal is to provide information to voters. We just want to make sure they have the tools to facilitate their access to their constitutional right to vote.”

League members said they have seen a resurgence of interest in politics since the election.

“There’s a lot of independence in New Hampshire voters, but in terms of activism we are finding a number of groups springing up in the state,” Tentarelli said.

At the moment, most of the these groups, she said, lean Democratic, given the dominance of the Republican party in the Statehouse, and the election of President Trump.

“We are willing to assist those groups in terms of educating them about how a bill becomes law, and advocacy, and we can do that because we’re not partisan,” Tentarelli added.

The League opposes what it considers to be unreasonable restrictions on access to voting, which is why Tentarelli attends hearings frequently at the statehouse.

When the Senate hearing ended she took an elevator up to the third floor where the House Election Law committee was hearing public comment on two bills.

The first was HB616, which would require voters filling out election affidavits in the absence of identification to provide proof of their qualifications to vote within 10 days of the election.

The second was HB348, a bill authorizing the Department of Motor Vehicles to simultaneously receive voter registration forms and license plate applications.

This time, Tentarelli did not testify but was there to sign into the record the League’s position on both bills: opposed to HB616, but in favor of HB348.

In the case of HB616, Tentarelli asked, what happens if you are an elderly person who has given up driving, no longer carries a license, and hasn’t taken advantage of the state’s offer of a free non-driver photo i.d.?

Or what happens if people who have relied on being recognized by an election official in their small town find that is no longer adequate for identification?

The league is also watching and making its position known on some bills making their way through the Statehouse.

These include both House and Senate bills that address the time-honored practice of gerrymandering. What the League wants to see reformed is the drawing of legislative districts on party lines, which leads, Tentarelli said, to a party trying to choose its voters, rather than voters trying to choose their candidates.

“There’s enough public awareness of gerrymandering that both parties realize that we have to figure out better ways to deal with this,” she said later in a phone interview.

One of the greatest concerns among League members is people who don’t vote because they’re indifferent to the candidates, or they think their vote won’t make a difference, or they’re just apathetic.

Gale said that she has “a penchant for asking people, ‘Do you vote?’ I can’t register voters but I can tell them where to vote.”

State Sen. Bette Lasky, D-Nashua, who is also a member of the League, has been frustrated by the numbers of people who don’t head to the ballot box on Election Day (although, as Tentarelli points out, the turnout in New Hampshire for the presidential election was 78 percent, the third highest in the nation).

“I’ve been active in the Democratic party and when I listen to people at meetings, and they say I’m not going to vote — they don’t get it,” Lasky said. “Our kids aren’t educated on civics and the process of not only just voting but also on how our democracy works. People don’t understand checks and balances, that’s the beauty of our three branches of government.”

In that spirit of civic education, Gale said that at the terminus of Nashua’s annual Fall Festival parade in 2015, the League erected a mock voting booth, where children could mark pretend ballots.

Such efforts, from encouraging kids at a young age to learn about voting to hosting political debates, is where the League’s drive to educate citizens is so valuable, Lasky said.

“Voting is a constitutional right, a duty and an obligation,” Lasky said.

For information on the League of Women Voters in New Hampshire, go to lwvnh.org. For Vermont, go to lwvofvt.org

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.