×

Critics Say Bill Targets Students



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, November 30, 2017

Hanover — Hanover-area officials are sounding the alarm over a bill they say would discourage New Hampshire college students from out of state from voting here.

The Senate bill, which would require voters to seek residency in order to vote, would place unnecessary hurdles between students and the ballot box, according to opponents.

But supporters counter that if passed, the law would clarify state election laws, and do a better job of vetting who is allowed onto the voter rolls.

“I’m continually disappointed and frustrated, of course, by what I see as a nasty attempt to suppress voting, especially of college students,” said state Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, on Wednesday.

Hennessey and her Democratic colleagues argue an amendment approved on Tuesday by the state Senate Election Law and Internal Affairs Committee would unfairly target college students who grew up out-of-state, and who have provided crucial votes for Democrats in some recent elections.

At issue is whether people should be forced to provide proof of residency when registering to vote in the state. Requirements would include providing utility bills or a rental agreement. A New Hampshire driver’s license and proof of registered motor vehicle also would be required.

That would mark a departure from current law, which requires one be “domiciled” in New Hampshire before voting, meaning they physically occupy a space in the Granite State “more than any other place.” A person has the right to change domicile at any time, according to the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s website.

The amendment passed along party lines, 3-2, and was attached to House Bill 372, which passed the House last year.

“The fact that they’re insisting on having in-state driver’s licenses is a clear attempt to try to keep any college students from voting here,” said Hennessey, whose district stretches from Lyme to Charlestown and includes Dartmouth College.

College towns, including the Grafton County communities of Hanover and Plymouth, have traditionally supported Democratic candidates. That was the case in 2016, when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton garnered 6,561 votes in Hanover, compared to Donald Trump’s 926.

Clinton also took 56 percent of the vote in Plymouth, which is home to Plymouth State University, against 37 percent for Trump.

She defeated Trump by less than 3,000 votes out of the more than 700,000 votes cast to win New Hampshire.

Trump has since claimed “serious voter fraud” resulted in him losing the state, although he has yet to provided any evidence. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner also has publicly rebuked that allegation and maintains the election results are “real and valid.”

Gardner, a Democrat, sits on Trump’s voter registration commission.

Republicans say the bill isn’t a partisan attack on opponents, but rather an attempt at fairness. Students, they argue, should be invested in New Hampshire if they choose to vote here.

“You should vote in the state where your vehicle is registered, and where the driver’s license is from.” said state Sen. Ruth Ward, R-Stoddard, who represents Upper Valley towns from Grantham to Unity.

“If the student wants to vote in New Hampshire, change the car registration and driver’s license,” she said. “No one is denied the right to vote.”

Those who decline to go through that process can instead vote absentee ballot from their home state, Ward said.

New London Town Clerk Linda Nicklos agreed, saying on Wednesday the proposed law would make checking IDs and registering voters easier.

During the 2016 election, it was difficult to keep track of Colby-Sawyer College students at the polls, she said, adding that many attempted to register on Election Day.

“Less confusion, no questions and no gray areas to deal with,” Nickols said of the bill. “If (you are) a resident, you are vested in one domicile; it is in black and white with a New Hampshire license.”

But Hanover Town Clerk Betsy McClain said she’s sure fewer students would vote if the bill took effect.

“I always appreciated the fact that New Hampshire has allowed residential students the option to either continue to vote from within the state in which they entered college or they could opt to claim Hanover as their voting domicile,” she said.

Plenty of students looked at the voter registration form and chose to walk away in the fall of 2012, McClain said. That year, the Legislature passed a controversial election law requiring those registering to vote to acknowledge they are subject to “laws requiring a driver to register a motor vehicle and apply for a New Hampshire driver’s license within 60 days of becoming a resident.”

Both the League of Women Voters and American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire took the state to court over the 2012 law, winning in Strafford County Superior Court in 2012 and at the Supreme Court in 2015.

It’s possible another court battle could be looming if the bill passes the full Senate and House. Several organizations, including the ACLU, sent out news releases on Tuesday condemning the measure.

“This bill is very concerning, as it acts as a post-election poll tax where, if such a person decides to exercise her constitutional right to vote, that person would now have 60 days to pay the state various motor vehicle fees,” wrote Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire.

And like the 2012 bill, the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s Office also is supporting the most recent measure.

“From our perspective, the amendment aligns the definition of ‘domicile’ and ‘residence’ so that it means the same thing,” said Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan on Wednesday.

The bill will make the voting system less confusing to ordinary Granite Staters, he said, while also providing a better way to ensure that only residents vote.

Gov. Chris Sununu hasn’t signaled whether he supports the measure. In an email on Wednesday, a spokesman said Sununu is “monitoring the legislation.”

Sununu, a Republican, also declined to comment on the matter during a Wednesday afternoon press call discussing his recent trip to Washington.

Regardless of what system the state ends up adopting, both Nickols, New London’s town clerk, and McClain, the Hanover clerk, hoped it wouldn’t create any more confusion at the polls. Both volunteers and voters should have a clear idea of what’s going on, they said.

“I just want this all sorted out well in advance of next fall,” McClain said.

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

Clarification

An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the role played by voters affected by the proposed new requirements to vote.