GOP bills to tighten voter eligibility again target students
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire Republicans are doubling down on efforts to tighten the state’s voter eligibility laws even though one of the recent changes they backed has yet to be settled in court.
The House Election Law Committee held public hearings Monday on six GOP-led bills related to voting, including several aimed at their favorite target: out-of-state college students. In 2018, the state began making students who vote here subject to the same residency requirements as anyone else, including drivers license and vehicle registration rules. Opponents argued that deters students from voting, but the new batch of bills would go even further.
One proposal would repeal a section of law that allows a student to claim the state as their domicile for voting purposes. The sponsor, Rep. Norm Silber, said students should be allowed to vote if they otherwise meeting eligibility requirements, but there shouldn’t be a “special class.”
“To have a blanket provision specifically singling them out as having a special right to vote really diminishes the rights of all the rest of our citizens,” said Silber, R-Gilford.
College students came out in force to oppose the bills, including Grace Murray, a student at Plymouth State University.
“Voting is the best way to ensure the community’s wants and needs are being represented. Students live at their school. We take part in the community. We visit the local businesses and we pour our money into the community,” she said. “We have a right to have our voices heard in the community we live in.”
Another bill appeared aimed at deterring colleges from encouraging students to vote. Rep. Al Baldasaro’s bill would require public colleges and universities to provide in-state tuition to any student registered to vote in the state. Currently, the schools set criteria for in-state tuition unrelated to voter registration.
“The schools are working hand in hand with the students and other groups to get them out to vote,” said Baldasaro, R-Londonderry. “If you’re helping these students to go vote, then you’re helping them become residents ... they should be paying in-state tuition.”
The sponsors of two other measures said they were motivated by hearing about college students who returned to their parents’ homes while their campuses were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic but voted by absentee ballot in New Hampshire while they were learning remotely. One bill would create a committee to study how the state defines a “temporary” absence from the state, while another would specify that someone who maintains an address in another state is not eligible to vote in New Hampshire.
“It feels like almost every session, we are changing the definitions of domicile and residency, creating great confusion amongst voters,” said Lucas Meyer, former president of the New Hampshire Young Democrats. “Continuing to move the goal posts on voters in this state as to who is defined as eligible to vote creates a great deal of confusion, which can act to suppress eligible voters from taking part in our elections.”
Other proposals would change the voter registration process even as changes enacted in 2017 remain tied up in court. Under those changes, the state tightened identification requirements and added penalties for noncompliance, but a superior court judge later struck down the law and an appeal to the state Supreme Court is pending.
Two of the new proposals would eliminate the current process that allows people to register and vote without documentation if they sign an affidavit. Under current law, those who fail to provide the documentation later can be fined, but their votes are counted. One of the bills would create a provisional registration and voting process instead, so that such votes would not be counted unless the documentation is later provided.
Opponents argued that the bills are built on fears of voter fraud that doesn’t exist.
“With no documented charges of organized fraud, the League of Women Voters of New Hampshire is both surprised and saddened by the legislators’ calls for changes to a registration and voting system that’s working very well in our state. Voters want to have confidence in the system, but that doesn’t mean they want it to be more complicated,” Liz Tentarelli of the League of Woman Voters said at a news conference earlier Monday.
Henry Klementowicz, staff attorney at the ACLU of New Hampshire, said out of more than 1 million votes cast in the September state primary and November general elections, the attorney general’s office is investigating 17 cases of wrongful voting and has yet to bring charges in any of them.
Associated Press Writer Kathy McCormack contributed to this report.