Magann: Let Us Vote

Every citizen deserves a say in our democracy.

by Matthew Magann | 4/12/18 2:10am

I live in New Hampshire. I may have grown up in Massachusetts, but I spend the majority of my time in this state –– for most of the year, it’s my home. New Hampshire’s policies affect me and its politicians represent me, regardless of the “student” label affixed to my name. That label doesn’t make me, or any other New Hampshire resident, less entitled to basic democratic rights.

Sadly, the New Hampshire House of Representatives has long tried to eliminate students’ right to vote. One of their latest bills, HB 1264, would change the state’s definition of residency and potentially require out-of-state students to either obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license or register a vehicle in-state in order to vote. The bill is now up for debate in the New Hampshire senate. Make no mistake: this measure is a poll tax meant to curtail student voting. Besides the upfront cost of registering a car or acquiring a license, both actions require a trip to the New Hampshire Department of Motor Vehicles. For a Dartmouth student, that would entail a 40-minute drive one way to the nearest DMV in Newport (public transportation is not an option). Add to that the DMV’s weekday-only hours, and a student busy with classes, activities and campus jobs has little chance of registering to vote.

Thankfully, New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu opposes bills that suppress the student vote, including HB 1264. Students should not be second-class citizens of this state, regardless of whether we plan to spend the rest of our lives in New Hampshire. As with any other resident, New Hampshire law applies to us, and as such we deserve a say in New Hampshire elections. 

I worry at the eagerness of New Hampshire’s Republican representatives to disenfranchise students. The latest voter suppression bill, HB 1264, passed largely on party lines, with Republicans for and Democrats against. Supporters of HB 1264 and similar bills claim they want to reduce voter fraud, but I fear that the partisan divide around HB 1264 signals a more sinister motive. To start, there is essentially no evidence of voter fraud in New Hampshire, and regardless, practically disenfranchising an entire demographic is never a morally acceptable means to secure elections. Instead, the evidence portrays HB 1264 as a partisan attempt to swing elections in favor of Republicans. Republican representatives perceive the student vote as largely pro-Democrat, and in a state where elections are often won by razor-thin margins, students’ votes can play a decisive role. Remember that in 2011, then-New Hampshire House Speaker William O’Brien promoted a bill similar to HB 1264 because, in his words, too many college students were “voting as [liberals].”

Voter suppression in the name of partisanship is both shameful and undemocratic. Fortunately, not all New Hampshire Republicans have abandoned democratic principles in pursuit of electoral victory. Governor Sununu, a Republican, has spoken out against bills that curtail student voting rights. He deserves praise for that, from all sides. If the parties can agree on anything, they ought to agree on the foundational nature of voting rights to our republic. I’m concerned at how readily the New Hampshire GOP abandons their commitment to voting rights when it serves to benefit them. No election victory is worth sacrificing our democratic principles.

New Hampshire is not alone in its struggle over the right to vote. Voter suppression remains an issue nationwide. In the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act, a piece of legislation that targeted racially-discriminatory voting restrictions. The court ruled that portions of the act had achieved their purpose and were no longer needed. Soon after the decision, though, multiple states enacted voter ID laws, eliminated same-day voter registration and reinstated many of the measures prohibited by the Voting Rights Act.

Supporters of increased voting regulation often justify it as a check on voter fraud. However, voter fraud is actually exceedingly rare, and regardless, ID laws and other voting barriers do little to stop it. The real purpose of these laws is identical to that of New Hampshire’s HB 1264: disenfranchisement.

Though they apply equally to all citizens, voter suppression measures disproportionately target black and Hispanic Americans, who are much less likely than white Americans to own photo IDs. These groups tend to favor Democrats, so suppressing their vote tilts elections towards Republicans. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of voter suppression measures put forward in recent years have arisen from the GOP. This is not to say that the Republican party is against voting rights; it’s not. Republicans like Governor Sununu provide an example to us all by placing voting rights above partisanship. But currently, too many Republican legislatures have advanced anti-democratic legislation meant to disenfranchise some of their constituents. Republicans, like all Americans, should stand up for voting rights; after all, those rights underlie our entire system of government.

If a political party resorts to voter suppression in order to swing elections, perhaps it should reassess its values and make compromises to bring voters over to its side. That’s how democracy should function. Measures like HB 1264 threaten democracy and have no place in this state, or in this nation. We all have the right to vote. No one has a right to take it away.