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Editorial: Voter ID Returns; Compromise Measure Makes Sense

The debate over the need for voter identification follows an all-too-familiar pattern in contemporary politics: So little common ground exists between the two sides that the exchange barely qualifies as a debate. Those pushing for more rigorous screening of voters say they are focused exclusively on protecting the integrity of the ballot, something necessitated by the frequency of voter fraud. Opponents maintain that there is nothing more important than unfettered access to the ballot box, and evidence of fraud is so scant that the push to impose new regulations can be nothing more than an effort to suppress the vote.

It didn’t seem as though there was much chance for finding middle ground — until the New Hampshire Legislature reconsidered a voter identification law it passed last year. The law, one of a number of controversial measures pushed through by a overbearing Republican majority, phased in identification requirements. In last fall’s elections, voters were required to produce identification, but were still allowed to vote without it if they signed affidavits. In the second phase, fewer forms of identification would be accepted, those who lacked proper ID would be photographed at the polls, and election officials would lose the authority to verify voters they personally recognized.

With the New Hampshire House now controlled by Democrats and the Senate more evenly balanced between the two parties, a bill was filed this session to repeal the voter ID law — part of a larger effort to undo many of the controversial measures passed during the last biennium. Because we belong to the camp that remains unconvinced that voter fraud occurs frequently enough to constitute a legitimate problem, it wouldn’t have broken our hearts to see the law wiped off the books. However, a compromise measure emerged from the House that makes sense on a couple of levels.

That bill simply calls for delaying implementation of the second phase of the law — scheduled to occur this September — at least until the attorney general’s office completes a review of last fall’s election. Several thousand mailers sent to verify the identity of voters who signed affidavits last fall after showing up to vote without ID have been returned as undeliverable. Our guess is that there’s a simple explanation: People who lack standard forms of ID tend to be more transient than most. The mailers bounced back because the voters had moved. In any case, this is an excellent opportunity to examine a particular election and determine the magnitude of the voter fraud problem. At that point, legislators can decide whether it is severe enough to merit the cost, additional work, hassle and restricted access that would result from fully implementing the original law.

There’s another reason why this compromise makes sense. Much as we’d like to erase the previous two legislative years from memory, not to mention the lawbooks, there’s much to be said for avoiding legislative whiplash.

Yes, the Republican majority that controlled Concord did a lot of damage in very little time, but New Hampshire should by leery of establishing a political pattern in which new majorities dedicate too much time to simply undoing what the previous one accomplished. Besides expending effort that might otherwise be directed toward moving the state forward, such backing and forthing is inherently destabilizing. Legislative action deserves the assumption of permanence; otherwise, the state will be in perpetual limbo, with those who find themselves disliking new laws simply biding their time until they reacquire power. The voter ID compromise that emerged from the House provides an opportunity not only to avoid that unhappy state of affairs but also, we hope, to establish the factual basis for laying this issue to rest.