Primary Source: COVID-19 could affect key college student vote in NH

  • John P. Gregg. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/17/2020 9:31:06 PM
Modified: 6/18/2020 8:18:26 AM

The race for New Hampshire’s four Electoral College votes is going to be close in November, and the COVID-19 pandemic may play a role.

If thousands of students at Dartmouth College and other universities around the state don’t return to campus in the fall as a safety precaution, it could also deprive Democrats of a key voting bloc that helped Hillary Clinton in 2016 and was also a deciding factor in Democrat Maggie Hassan’s defeat of then-U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.

Clinton defeated Donald Trump by just 0.3 percentage points — less than 3,000 votes — in 2016 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.

Dartmouth has already signaled that not all students will be allowed back on campus in the fall — a decision is expected by the end of the month.

Given that most Dartmouth students are from out of state, as are more than half of University of New Hampshire’s 13,000 undergraduates, many of them, if still at home with mom and dad, could be more likely to vote there than to take an absentee ballot and vote in New Hampshire.

Hanover Town Clerk Betsy McClain said students comprise about 30% of Hanover’s voter checklist and that she expects many of them “will be encouraged by local organizers to vote via absentee ballot.” But if Dartmouth (and other schools) keep first-year students away, that could be a different story.

“If these individuals are not on campus for the fall, I don’t see how they will be eligible to register to vote (as they have yet to establish their Hanover physical domicile), and I believe this would have an observable impact on our electorate,” McClain said via email on Wednesday.

Ann Shump, the supervisor of the checklist in Durham, also said things are somewhat up in the air, though UNH appears more likely to have students return.

“We hope to be able to work collaboratively with UNH to register students who wish to vote in Durham before November, either in person somehow or absentee, and then to encourage students as well as other residents in Durham to vote absentee. However, this is always pretty tricky with college students,” she said via email.

“We do not know what to expect and will have to be prepared as we always are, except with masks, gloves, sneeze guards and other safety measures, to register what has been around 3,000 new voters on Election Day. It will be a challenge.”

Andrew Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center, said New Hampshire “leans toward” Democrat Joe Biden, but that the state “is likely to be close again.”

“It’s going to be a battleground,” Smith said.

U.S. Senate race

Trump weighed in bigly in the GOP primary to unseat U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. Trump last week tweeted out that Corky Messner, a corporate lawyer from Colorado who recently moved to New Hampshire, has his “complete and total endorsement” in a primary that also includes Laconia native Don Bolduc, a retired Army general.

Messner, Trump tweeted, “will be a fantastic Senator for New Hampshire! A West Point graduate, he served our Country in the Army with distinction. Strong on Jobs, Crime, Vets, Military and the Second Amendment.”

For his part, Bolduc, who talks openly about his combat experience in Afghanistan and post-traumatic stress disorder, told a Carroll County Republican group Tuesday that he was disappointed.

“I consider this a form of election rigging. Why even have a primary election if Washington, D.C., is going to decide the candidate? What does this mean for your vote, your choice, and your decision on who represents New Hampshire in the general election?” Bolduc asked, according to a text provided by his campaign. “I blame myself for not knowing the rules. If I had known I had to spend the past year campaigning in D.C. rather than in New Hampshire, I would have played the game differently.”

New Hampshire races

Along with state Senate races and a doozy of a Democratic House primary in Hanover and Lyme, there are several contests for other legislative seats in the Upper Valley.

That includes a rematch in the two-seat Sullivan 1 House district, where state Reps. Lee Oxenham, D-Plainfield, and Brian Sullivan, D-Grantham, are again being challenged by Plainfield Republican Virginia Drye.

Drye’s mother, Margaret, who has long been active in civic and GOP circles, is again running for the Sullivan 9 “floterial” seat held by state Rep. Linda Tanner, D-Georges Mills, and representing Grantham, Plainfield, Cornish, Springfield, Newport, Croydon, Sunapee and Unity.

State Rep. Gates Lucas, R-Sunapee, an ardent supporter of Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, has opted not to seek a second term. Sunapee Democrat Sue Gottling has filed to win her old Sullivan 2 seat back in a district that also includes Croydon and will face Sunapee Republican Donald Bettencourt in November.

In Claremont, state Rep. Gary Merchant, a Democrat, faces a challenge from Paul LaCasse Sr., while Republican state Rep. Walter Stapleton is being challenged by Democrat Liza Draper.

In the two-seat Sullivan 6 district representing Newport and Unity, Republican state Rep. Skip Rollins is being challenged by Newport Democrats Larry Flint and Peter Franklin. The 89-year-old Franklin is a former House lawmaker.

John P. Gregg can be reached at

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