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AG rebuffs Republicans’ call to bar remote college students from voting in NH

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/21/2020 10:44:52 PM
Modified: 10/21/2020 10:44:45 PM

HANOVER — New Hampshire college students temporarily living outside of the state because of the COVID-19 pandemic can continue claiming the Granite State as their domicile and are allowed to vote in Nov. 3 election, the state Attorney General’s Office said Wednesday.

“Once a student lawfully establishes domicile in New Hampshire … the student does not lose his or her domicile due to temporary absence,” Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Chong Yen said in a letter that rebuffed a request from the New Hampshire Republican Party to prevent students who returned to out-of-state homes from voting here.

In an Oct. 15 letter to the Attorney General’s Office, a lawyer for the New Hampshire Republican State Committee asked the office to inform election officials that students who were not in New Hampshire now because of the pandemic were not eligible to vote, saying those “who do not live here and have no residence here at the time of the election are not qualified voters.”

The assertions could have affected the roughly 2,200 Dartmouth College students — about half of all undergraduates — who aren’t allowed back on campus this semester under the school’s reopening plans, and students at other campuses, as well.

But the Attorney General’s Office explained that students who are “temporarily absent” because of the pandemic would only lose their voting status if they register elsewhere or have no plans to return, the letter said. The guidance echoes provisions of state law that allow college students to retain their primary domicile when returning home over summer break.

In Hanover alone, students make up about 30% of the town’s voter checklist, Town Clerk Betsy McClain said in June.

She said on Wednesday that the town has received more than 3,000 absentee ballots, and estimated that roughly a quarter of those may come from Dartmouth students.

Those living on campus or who lived in Hanover prior to the college’s remote learning mandate may obtain a Hanover ballot, so long as they haven’t registered to vote elsewhere and ultimately plan on returning, she said in a phone interview.

That includes students who are taking online classes outside of Hanover, including in surrounding Upper Valley towns, McClain said.

“It basically amounts to they are temporarily away from where they are claiming is their voting domicile,” she said.

However, someone who registered to vote out-of-state — possibly for this summer’s primaries — may face difficulty re-registering in Hanover, McClain said. That’s especially true of returning students who don’t have a Hanover address.

“We just had to turn away somebody who was in that exact situation,” she said. “We suggested that they contact the state that they’re registered in and work with them to get an absentee ballot.”

New students who haven’t come to Hanover yet because of the remote learning rules also are ineligible to register, McClain added.

“There’s mistaken perception by some that just being matriculated at Dartmouth grants residency,” she said. “That’s not true.”

That position was affirmed by the Attorney General’s Office letter, which said “a person who has never established a physical presence in New Hampshire cannot be domiciled in the State for voting purposes.”

Voting rights groups and the New Hampshire Democratic Party were quick to point to the letter from the Attorney General’s Office as vindication of their get out the vote efforts.

“This was a really shameless yet unsurprising attempt to suppress student voters by the New Hampshire GOP,” Emma Tyler, state director of NextGen New Hampshire, said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

“The guidance from the Attorney General this morning reaffirms what we already knew and what is clearly obvious to everyone besides the GOP,” Tyler added. “There should be no doubt that any eligible New Hampshire student voter can vote in the general election even if they’re temporarily absent.”

Emails requesting comment from New Hampshire GOP spokesman Joe Sweeney were not returned Wednesday.

College students are a key voting bloc that Democrats have relied on in purple-state New Hampshire.

Four years ago, Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump by just 0.3% — less than 3,000 votes —in New Hampshire, thanks in large part to the 23,100 votes she won in the college towns of Hanover, Durham, Keene and Plymouth, to just 8,600 there for Trump.

The pandemic, and reduced number of in-person students, has made voter registration drives on campuses more challenging this year.

“This has probably been the hardest election to organize in our lives,” said Josie Pinto, political director of the New Hampshire Youth Movement.

Pinto said past efforts left the group with “pretty solid lists” of contacts, resulting in 1,200 pledges to vote this year across the state.

“We didn’t start from scratch. We did have a really robust list of contact,” she said. “But it definitely has been a unique time to try to grow that list.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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