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Dozens Testify on N.H. Voter Bill

  • An overflow crowd listens to New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner testify at a Senate committee hearing in Concord, N.H., on April 10, 2018, about HB 1264, a bill that would change residency requirements to participate in elections. (Concord Monitor - Geoff Forester)

  • Rob Spencer is interviewed by Seamsus and Buddy Sullivan, sons of Rep. Victoria Sullivan, R-Manchester, as they ask why he is opposed to HB 1264, a bill that would change residency requirements to participate in elections, outside the Legislative Office Building in Concord, N.H., on April 10, 2018. (Concord Monitor - Geoff Forester)



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Concord — Dartmouth College students and Hanover’s town clerk joined scores of New Hampshire voters and advocates on Tuesday to testify on HB 1264, a bill that has sparked controversy over claims that it would tie motor registration fees and other obligations associated with residency to participation in elections.

A simple proposed tweak to the state’s definition of a legal resident has fueled a debate over the merits of voting by students who grew up out-of-state but now attend college in New Hampshire. Advocates say the measure would simplify statutory terms and protect the integrity of elections, whereas opponents call it a “poll tax” that would suppress the vote through unnecessary fees.

“We didn’t just choose Dartmouth; we chose New Hampshire,” Michael Parsons, a sophomore from Norfolk, Va., said on Tuesday morning before the start of a public hearing of the Senate Election Law and Internal Affairs Committee.

Parsons, a baseball player who volunteers with the Special Olympics and Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth fundraisers, said the bill’s redefinition of residency in relation to voting status was a blow to students’ involvement in communities.

“Why has my volunteering with the community not demonstrated intent (to participate)?” he asked.

Proponents such as Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan say the legislation will simplify confusing definitions in state law and provide assurances to voters about the integrity of New Hampshire’s elections.

“If people lose confidence, they may have the attitude, ‘Well, my vote’s not going to count anyway,’ ” Scanlan said, referring to the perception of widespread illegal voting propagated by President Donald Trump, among others.

More than a hundred people packed a small committee room on the first floor of the Legislative Office Building, leading Democratic Sen. Jeff Woodburn to pound his fist on the table to demand more space. The hearing eventually moved to a larger room upstairs.

The text of the legislation is simple. It would remove four words from the state’s definition of a “resident,” or a person living in New Hampshire who has “demonstrated a current intent to designate that place of abode as his or her principal place of physical presence for the indefinite future to the exclusion of all others.”

By taking out “for the indefinite future,” opponents contend, the law would merge residency with “domicile,” the key term in the New Hampshire constitution used to determine voter eligibility.

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that deleting those four words effectively would turn the act of voting into a declaration of residency, triggering various requirements that New Hampshire imposes on legal residents — including that, within 60 days, they register their cars and change their drivers licenses.

Even though the law would not pose a direct obstacle to voting, the requirements and possible fees after casting a ballot would deter transient and low-income voters from participating, he said.

“A poll tax is a poll tax is a poll tax,” he said, whether it comes before or after the vote.

Nearly all of the dozens of witnesses on Tuesday testified against the bill, except for a handful of advocates who included Secretary of State Bill Gardner and Scanlan, his deputy secretary for elections.

The men who oversee New Hampshire’s elections emphasized that the bill would not stop anyone from actually casting a ballot.

They also said that a “significant portion” of New Hampshire voters believe widespread voting fraud exists. Despite a lack of evidence to support such claims, they said, state officials must combat the perception of impropriety, which itself could hurt turnout.

“We know that instances of voter fraud are not rampant,” Scanlan said, but “equally important,” he added, is “what is the perception of the voters?”

“A significant number of people believe in UFOs, as well,” Woodburn, a Democrat from Whitefield, replied.

Several witnesses alluded to Gov. Chris Sununu’s past opposition to this bill and a similar one, HB 372, and urged the Republican governor to veto the legislation.

Ben Vihstadt, Sununu’s spokesman and a 2016 Dartmouth graduate, said the governor still opposed the bills.

“The governor’s position has not changed,” Vihstadt said in an email. “He has serious concerns with both HB 372 and HB 1264, and does not support either bill in their current form.”

He did not say whether the governor would veto, however.

Students from Dartmouth and other New Hampshire schools have been traveling to Concord for years to testify against bills that they fear will infringe on their voting rights.

Nearly a year ago, dozens of students came to a hearing in Representatives Hall to oppose a bill, now law, that requires voters registering within 30 days of an election to submit proof of domicile after voting or possibly be subject to a criminal investigation.

Some parts of the legislation, sponsored by the current Senate Election Law chairwoman, Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, were blocked by a judge last year, and a suit from the League of Women Voters is ongoing.

Betsy McClain, the elected town clerk in Hanover, said she had seen past voter identification laws cause confusion among students and even deter some from registering to vote.

“This is their home,” she said of the students, who make up at least 4,500 of the town’s 11,000 residents. “Students live where they learn. Our students are a permanent and singular part of who we are in our Hanover community.”

“Voting systems should be secure, yes, but they should also be fair and open,” added McClain, who was speaking during a rally for HB 1264 opponents before the hearing, where she also testified.

The four Dartmouth students who testified on Tuesday said they tended to vote Democratic.

The Dartmouth College Republicans could not be reached for comment, but their president, Abraham Herrera, offered a remark critical of collegiate voting to student newspaper The Dartmouth earlier this month.

“I think (the status quo) is unfair, actually, to (New Hampshire residents), because it crowds out their voice by allowing students to come here every four years and change the political landscape of what New Hampshire is,” Herrera said.

Changes to student turnout might swing elections in New Hampshire, where in 2016 Hillary Clinton and Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan won by slim margins, boosted by strong support in college towns.

Clinton won 6,561 votes in Hanover to Trump’s 926. In Plymouth, home to Plymouth State University, Clinton carried the town with 56 percent of the vote to 37 percent for Trump.

Yet statewide, Clinton defeated Trump by just 2,736 votes, out of more than 700,000 cast. Hassan unseated the incumbent senator, Republican Kelly Ayotte, by a little more than a thousand votes.

Tuesday’s hearing was a meeting to gather testimony from the public, so the committee made no immediate decision on HB 1264. An executive session for discussion among committee members likely will be scheduled for a later date.

The bill passed the House of Representatives in early March, 171-144.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.