New Hampshire House to debate bills on voting

by Peter Charalambous | 4/3/18 2:14am

The New Hampshire House of Representatives passed House Bill 1264, which would modify the definitions of “resident” and “residence” and could potentially impact voting laws, on March 6. Voting predominantly on party lines, Republican representatives spearheaded the 171-144 vote, while Democratic members railed against the bill, calling it a de facto “poll tax.” On March 12, HB 1264 was introduced to the state Senate for debate.

HB 1264 attempts to redefine the terms “resident” and “residence” in New Hampshire law. Under current law, a resident is defined as having “demonstrated a current intent to designate [his or her] place of abode as his or her principal place of physical presence for the indefinite future to the exclusion of all others;” a residence is the principal place of physical presence. The new bill would strike the phrase “for the indefinite future” from these definitions, which would affect out-of-state students, members of the military serving in New Hampshire, medical personnel, visiting professors and others who currently qualify to vote as individuals domiciled in New Hampshire.

HB 1264 is nearly the same law as HB 372, which the New Hampshire Senate passed in January. However, the Senate Election Law and Internal Affairs Committee added an amendment with a statement of purpose to that bill stating that voters must be New Hampshire residents. Following the addition of this statement, the bill encountered increased opposition and is facing legislative delays. Republican Rep. David Bates sponsored HB 372, but a group of four Republican representatives, not including Bates, have sponsored HB 1264, which does not contain a similar statement of purpose at the moment.

The two bills continue an ongoing debate in New Hampshire regarding non-permanent residents’ right to vote in the state. New Hampshire legislators passed SB 3 last June, complicating same-day voter registration for college students in New Hampshire. In September, the New Hampshire superior court upheld the law but blocked a portion of the law that levied fines against voters who could not provide proper documentation on election day.

Supporters of HB 1264 claim the bill corrects New Hampshire law to account for a court case, Newburger v. Peterson, which ruled that the standard created by the terminology “for the indefinite future” is unconstitutional. However, New Hampshire’s current voting standard already accounts for the Newburger decision by stating that individuals domiciled in New Hampshire have the right to vote in the state, said Gilles Bissonnette, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire.

Bissonnette has testified in the New Hampshire Legislature against HB 1264, arguing that the law misunderstands current New Hampshire law and would effectively create a de facto “poll tax.”

Bissonnette claimed that the bills may impose financial constraints on voting. For example, in order to prove residency, students would have to either register a vehicle in New Hampshire — which can cost up to $100 — or obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license, which costs around $50. Under the proposed law, a person who fails to obtain proper registration or license documentation after voting would be committing a misdemeanor, Bissonnette said.

He noted that certain groups such as college students, professors, military members and hospital residents would be particularly impacted by the bills.

“Our chief concern is that those costs are really going to deter people from exercising their right to vote in the state where they live,” Bissonnette said. “Money shouldn’t be a determinative factor in deciding whether to exercise to vote where you live. That’s why we have restrictions against poll taxes in this country.”

Hanover town clerk Betsy McClain stated that she believes that with HB 1264, some people may be persuaded not to vote because of the inconvenience of registering a vehicle in the state or getting a New Hampshire driver’s license. She noted that the inconvenience of traveling to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Newport as well as its business hours can deter students from registering. During past elections during which similar restrictions were in place, McClain said she witnessed students deciding not to vote after entering a polling station and realizing the requirements.

McClain estimated that of the 11,000 active voters registered in the Town of Hanover, around 25 percent are registered with Hinman boxes.

In a swing state like New Hampshire, elections are often decided by a few thousand votes. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote victory over President Donald Trump in New Hampshire was determined by 2,736 votes. Similarly, Governor Chris Sununu won his election by a margin of 15,451 votes and Senator Maggie Hassan won by 1,017 votes.

Deputy New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan, whose office oversees elections, has supported the bill on the basis that it could help increase confidence in the electoral process.

“All voters are supposed to be equal under the law, and that’s all that [HB 1264 and HB 372] are attempting to do,” Scanlan said.

Citing a growing nationwide concern about voter fraud, similar definitions of residency enforced in neighboring states and a decreasing confidence in elections, Scanlan noted the importance of taking steps to address voting fraud concerns and strengthen electoral integrity. While he noted that instances of voter fraud have been prosecuted in the past, Scanlon said that data on instances of voter fraud are still being collected and are expected to be released over the summer.

“What lies in the balance is confidence in our elections,” Scanlan said. “Confidence by itself does a lot to drive voter turnout. It is important to us that we get it right.”

While formal data on fraud in New Hampshire for the 2016 presidential election has not yet been released, McClain noted that she is unaware of any instance of voter fraud in Hanover. However, she said that there have been concerns that voters could theoretically be on two voter rolls in separate states under the current system. Voter registration in two states is legal as long as two votes are not cast in the same election.

“Being registered in two places doesn’t mean you cast two ballots,” McClain said. “In my opinion, there is a clean distinction between the two. One is abject voter fraud — you cannot vote twice — and the other, where you might register twice, is just sloppy housekeeping in terms of not removing yourself from where you were previously registered.”

Opponents of the bill also include Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).

“From the New Hampshire State House to the Oval Office, we have seen repeated attempts by Republican leaders to suppress the student vote in the Granite State,” Shaheen wrote in an email statement. “These attacks, rooted in baseless claims of voter fraud, threaten our democratic process in New Hampshire. The truth is, voter fraud is extremely rare. These politicians should respond to the concerns of young voters rather than try to purge them from the voter rolls. We should be working together to increase — not decrease — voter participation in our elections.”

Sununu expressed concern about the current iterations of the bills.

Sununu’s spokesperson Benjamin Vihstadt ’16 wrote in an email statement that Sununu “has serious concerns with both HB 372 and HB 1264 and does not support either bill in their current form.”

“The Governor’s position has not changed,” he wrote.

As the newest version of this debate continues in the state legislature, discussion of the bill is growing on Dartmouth’s campus. On March 28, Jason Kander, the founder of Let America Vote and voting rights advocate spoke at Alpha Chi Alpha fraternity, according to College Democrats president Jennifer West ’20.

“[Dartmouth College Democrats’] stance is that any bill that makes it harder for New Hampshire college students to vote is a bad bill,” West said.

College Republicans president Abraham Herrera offered an opposing view of the bills.

“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.