GOP contests new voters at polls

by Kathleen McDermott and Megh Duwadi | 11/6/02 6:00am

A Republican Party operation in New Hampshire's college towns forced voters to wait in unprecedented lines yesterday as GOP lawyers questioned the residency status of hundreds of area residents seeking to register to vote.

Democrats claimed that the GOP was mounting an organized campaign to inconvenience a group of voters that generally favors liberal candidates. Republican leaders, however, denied that the lawyers hired by the party were sent to intimidate or discourage students from voting, but merely to inform students of the legal repercussions of changing their residency status.

But despite claims of an educational intent, the Republican monitors at the Hanover polls neither answered queries from nor provided further information to those whose voter registrations they had challenged.

Focusing on several towns -- including Hanover and Durham, home of the University of New Hampshire -- lawyers sent by the New Hampshire Republican Party exercised a statutory right to question the residency or citizenship status of individuals taking advantage of same-day voter registration.

Those challenged were asked to sign a special affidavit confirming that they do in fact reside in the Granite State and were otherwise eligible to vote.

Almost immediately after hearing from volunteers about the lawyers' challenges, the New Hampshire Democratic Party sent a team of three attorneys to ensure that students were able to vote, party representatives said.

New Hampshire is one of several states with same-day voter registration, allowing college students and others to easily declare New Hampshire as their residency on Election Day and vote without prior completion of forms.

The additional paperwork and confusion caused by the affidavits forced many registering to vote at Hanover's Richmond Middle School to wait in lines lasting at times over an hour.

Those who stood in the cold said that they were annoyed, but undeterred.

Andy Shamel '05 said he spent nearly two hours at the polls waiting for his chance to vote.

According to Eli Meltzer '06, so many students were having their residency challenged that students began to pick up the affidavit forms even before being requested to do so by the lawyers.

Many students were forewarned of the long lines and confusion while on the shuttle ride over to the polling -- a van to the middle school was provided by the Young Democrats -- yet were still not discouraged from voting.

"They wanted to make it as inconvenient as possible for students just to further impede their opportunities to vote," according to Josh Marcuse '04, an intern with the state Democratic party who spent his day going back and forth between campus and the polls.

Vikash Reddy '05, president of the College's Young Democrats, said he saw the Republican actions as a calculated strategy on the part of the Sununu campaign to discourage student voters.

Marcuse suggested the strategy "really backfired," with students still voting in large numbers, claiming that townspeople were "outraged" at the lawyers' actions and subsequent long lines.

The lawyers, who arrived at the polling station at about 1 p.m. yesterday afternoon, left around 6 p.m.

The New Hampshire Republican Party also sent lawyers to the towns of Nashua and New Market, according to Chuck McGee, chair of the state Republican Party. Lawyers also moved around from polling location to location as needed, McGee said.

Dan Ronayne, press secretary for the New Hampshire Republican National Committee, denied that there was any coordinated effort by the party leadership to discourage student voters.

Walter Moore Jr., a Sununu campaign volunteer who monitored polling at the middle school, denied that college students were specifically singled out to sign affidavits.

"Anyone who registered and didn't necessarily have things that would be typical of a New Hampshire residence, like a New Hampshire driver's license," Moore said. "The affidavits were signed by many people who registered to vote," and not just students.

During the last election, many students were encouraged by Democratic supporters to vote in New Hampshire without a thorough understanding of what that meant, according to Kate Whitman, communications director of the Republican State Committee. Whitman denied, however, the many claims by voters that college students or those not registering as Republicans were singled out to have their residency challenged.

Students need to know that by voting in New Hampshire they become New Hampshire residents, she said, and the lawyers were present at polling sites yesterday to make that clear to students.

In the 2000 election, Democratic supporters "took advantage of the process" of same-day voter registration and failed to fully inform students of the legal ramifications, causing "a problem" in Hanover and Durham as well as in Keene, home of Keene State College, according to McGee.

This confusion regarding voting eligibility and its legal ramifications is a difficulty common in states with same-day registration, according to Bill Frenzel, an expert on election campaign law at the Brookings Institute.

"There are a lot of cases in which people are confused," Frenzel said. And "when anyone tries to prevent voter fraud, that person is accused of voter intimidation," he added.

According to Marilyn Willy-Black, the election moderator at the Richmond Middle School yesterday, the confusion and added hassle could have created a "much more awful situation," had Dartmouth students not been "so gracious."

"The Dartmouth students were wonderful, patient and courteous," she said.

During the 2000 presidential primaries, Durham election officials reportedly discouraged many UNH students from voting when they told out-of-state students that they would lose state-based scholarships if they switched their residencies to New Hampshire.

This time, Durham election officials did not say anything to students. But they did put up signs around voting stations to the same effect. Shaheen Press Secretary Colin Van Ostern said new voters there experienced difficulties registering.

Senior editor Rachel Osterman and news editor Alison Schmauch contributed to this report.