Concord — Nearly 200 people packed the New Hampshire House chamber on Tuesday for a public hearing on a bill that would require voters to give stronger proof of their eligibility at the polls.
Several undergraduates from Dartmouth College spoke against the legislation on the grounds it could restrict student voting. State legislators, mostly Republicans, said the bill — known as SB 3 — was needed to increase confidence in the electoral process.
“No one, no one will be denied the right to vote ... ,” the bill’s prime sponsor, state Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, said at the hearing. “If you don’t have your paperwork, you can still go in and vote.”
Among other provisions, the legislation would require people registering to vote fewer than 30 days before an election to sign a new affidavit that requires them to submit proof of domicile within 10 days of voting.
If they don’t provide that proof by the deadline, they could be subject to investigation and a possible $5,000 fine if they are determined to have committed fraud.
New Hampshire currently defines domicile for voting purposes as “that one place where a person, more than any other place, has established a physical presence and manifests an intent to maintain a single continuous presence for domestic, social, and civil purposes relevant to participating in democratic self-government.”
Opponents of the bill, which passed the New Hampshire Senate last month in a 14-9 party-line vote, said the new requirements would prevent college students, low-income people and the homeless, among other groups, from voting.
Charlotte Blatt, a Dartmouth junior who campaigned for Hillary Clinton and has served as president of the Dartmouth College Democrats, said the bill would make voting “difficult and confusing” for students.
“On my campus I have ended up explaining how voter registration works to many of my peers, and already many of them feel like they don’t understand the process,” she said. “This bill would only confuse them more and discourage more students from registering to vote.”
Afterward, state Rep. Andy White, a Lebanon Democrat who sits on the House Election Law Committee, which conducted the hearing, said Dartmouth students still would be able to use their college-issued IDs to obtain a ballot.
The real burden of the bill, he said, would be in proving a New Hampshire domicile when registering to vote.
The proposed legislation offers many kinds of proofs of domicile — New Hampshire tax returns, vehicle registrations, hunting or fishing licenses — that students are unlikely to have, White said, and the forms that voters sign do not make it clear that residence in a college dormitory is an acceptable way to demonstrate domicile.
“Dartmouth students could have an impediment to voting — and (those at) any other institutions across the state — if they have difficulty producing the information that’s required, which for college students is pretty significant,” he said.
Secretary of State William Gardner, a former Democratic state legislator, testified in support of the bill, saying it would increase voter confidence — the most significant influence on turnout, he said.
“I don’t want to hurt the turnout,” he said, “but I don’t want a situation where some people believe, rightfully or not, that these results aren’t true. That’s the balance you want. How do you meet that balance?”
Gardner also referred to testimony earlier on Tuesday from state Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Republican and vocal Trump ally from Londonderry, who alleged that New Hampshire saw widespread voter fraud and offered to share cellphone pictures that Baldasaro said showed out-of-state cars parked near polling places.
Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, made a similar claim after the 2016 election cycle, asserting without offering any evidence that Democrats had bused in Massachusetts residents to vote in New Hampshire’s elections.
“We’ve never been provided proof, but a number of people in this state believe that it is happening,” Gardner said.
Gardner argued that the perception of widespread voting fraud had a negative effect on turnout and on public confidence in elections.
Some of that anxiety stems from the presence of vehicles at the polls that are not registered in New Hampshire, he said. During a recent election, Gardner visited a polling location near the Massachusetts border and saw that nearly every car in the parking lot had out-of-state plates. Gardner said he was told by a town election official that the cars belonged to sign-holders outside the polls.
“It’s not pretty to see that at a parking lot for all of these polling places with all of these out-of-state cars,” Gardner said, adding of widespread voter fraud, “but ... there’s not been any proof that anything like that has happened.”
Later on Tuesday, Gail Kinney, a pastor at the Meriden Congregational Church, criticized those who spread allegations of widespread voter fraud, saying they had violated the biblical commandment against giving false testimony.
“A lot of what brought about this bill was actually false witness,” she said. “ ... We have heard stories about major voter fraud and pictures on phones about people with out-of-state plates voting.
“That is a terrible basis on which to legislate,” she said, urging the committee to vote “inexpedient to legislate.”
Several town checklist supervisors also spoke against the bill, saying it would pose an undue, and perhaps dangerous, burden on them.
Jean Lightfoot, a checklist supervisor in Hopkinton, expressed concern about provisions in the bill that would require town officials to visit the addresses listed by voters who signed domicile affidavits, if those voters do not provide proof of domicile within the given period.
“We are elected officials, but we are not trained to be law enforcement personnel,” she said. “Many of us are older ladies and do not carry firearms.”
Lightfoot said carrying out these investigations would be an “onerous duty,” one that likely would force her to resign as a supervisor.
This provision faced criticism during state Senate hearings, as well; back then, it required that police investigate voters’ claims to domicile.
Gilles Bissonnette, an attorney with the New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, testified against the bill as well.
“We’re very concerned that this bill would have an effect on certain classes of voters in this state,” he said, speaking of “transient individuals” who change residences in the weeks and months before election. “We’re talking about individuals who are low income, who may not have a formal lease, who may not have a utility (bill).”
He also expressed concern about the wording of the provision that calls for investigations into voters who sign domicile affidavits. Voters can check a box on their affidavits indicating they don’t have proof of their domicile, but the bill also would expand New Hampshire’s definition of voting fraud to include people who do not offer such proof.
“You’re deemed to have committed that offense simply because you didn’t have those documents,” Bissonnette said.
Tuesday’s was a hearing to solicit public comment. Members of the committee said they may meet and come to a decision on the bill next week.
Rob Wolfe can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3242.