On Sept. 12, a New Hampshire Superior Court judge allowed Senate Bill 3 — a bill that changes the proof of residency requirements for voters who choose to register same-day — to take effect but blocked a portion of the bill imposing fines on voters who are unable to produce the required documents.
Hanover town clerk Betsy McClain said that before the bill, voters who chose to register same-day could verbally confirm their residency and sign a document on-site if they were unable to produce proper identification on voting day, swearing under penalty of perjury that they live in the town of Hanover.
Now, these voters will need to fill out a different form and return to the clerk’s office within 10 days of registration to provide proof of residence. Acceptable proof of residence documents include a driver’s license, a utility bill or, according to McClain, “[proof of] residence at an institution of learning.”
Primary bill sponsor Republican State Sen. Regina Birdsell said the purpose of the bill is to combat voter fraud. Birdsell explained that during her campaigns for state representative and state senator, she personally talked with constituents and “got a lot of consternations from the constituents … about their concern for our electoral system.” She believes SB3 “would help put a little bit of integrity into our electoral system.”
Chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party Raymond Buckley said when he was a state representative, he never encountered these concerns from constituents.
“The latest [University of New Hampshire] poll stated that 87 percent of New Hampshire’s voters believe that there is no voter fraud in New Hampshire,” he said.
Birdsell spoke of 196 cases of people who voted in New Hampshire and may have also voted in another state, but said these cases are “still in the investigation phase.” In response to this claim, Buckley’s office pointed to a Washington Post article from July that revealed that the Crosscheck System, which Birdsell referenced in naming the 196 voters who may have committed fraud, proved false over 99 percent of the time.
Though the bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate and House bodies, and has gone into effect in the state, the New Hampshire Democratic Party and the League of Women Voters continue to fight the bill in court based on constitutionality.
As it currently stands, the court ruled to suspend the portion of the bill that imposes penalties of $5,000 and a year in jail if a voter fails to display proper identification within the 10-day window.
Judge Charles Temple, who presided over the case, wrote in the announcement that the penalties were a strong voting deterrent.
“To the Court, these provisions … act as a very serious deterrent on the right to vote, and if there is indeed a ‘compelling’ need for them, the Court has yet to see it,” he wrote.
Buckley said he believes that as hearings continue, SB3 will be ruled as unconstitutional, as it suppresses voters.
Birdsell, on the other hand, still supports the bill, and said the bill is fully constitutional.
Many Democrats feel that rather than addressing fraud, this bill aims to make it harder for college students, who have often voted Democrat in the past several elections, to cast a ballot.
McClain said that in last November’s election, 1,235 of about 8,000 voters in Hanover registered same day.
Buckley said now that students need to obtain proof of residence, the entire registration process could take many hours.
“I think that what worries me is that [SB3] is the first step in an effort by the Republican party to disenfranchise entire classes of individuals based on how they vote,” he said.
Birdsell, however, said SB3 actually requires less paperwork, as it combined two forms, the domiciles affidavit and the registration form, into one.
Another change for college students, McClain said, is that many students may be registered in two places at once, such as their college town and hometown. This does not mean they are casting more than one ballot in the same election but are active voters in two states at once. SB3 requires them to choose between the two.
McClain said students “shouldn’t just flip flop depending upon where they happen to be at any given time within their extended stay in New Hampshire.” Though citizens can register in different places for different elections, each time they register in New Hampshire, they will now have to sign a document stating they are not registered to vote in any other state at the time.
Joseph Bafumi, a government professor and self-proclaimed centrist, said that the stark difference between the Republican and Democratic views on the issue reflect a polarization between parties.
“In a place like New Hampshire where [former Democratic presidential candidate] Hillary Clinton won, but just by a little bit, each party is looking to rescue every vote for themselves that they can, and of course trying to avoid any kind of fraudulent votes for the other side,” he said.
Buckley said that the Republicans are seeking any victories they can.
“I think that the Republicans are desperate,” Buckley said. “Because the reality is the past 10 years in New Hampshire have been the best decade the Democrats have ever had. The Republicans aren’t used to losing.”
McClain said that SB3 adds new rules and paperwork.
“I think [SB3] adds more complexity to a process that is by and large run by volunteers who don’t make this a profession,” she said. “It’s a passion of theirs, but it’s getting harder and harder to get people to interpret these laws that are ever-changing and more complex.”
She is concerned that civil servants will start to receive calls with clarifying questions, and she worries “about being able to adequately explain and provide input for our voters to make their own decisions,” she said.
Bafumi said the law has implications of the future of democracy as a whole, pointing toward increasing distrust in the electoral process.
“If we don’t think our elections are legitimate, then we’re going to be much less likely to support our political institutions, not only our politicians but our very institutions and the laws that they’ve passed,” he said.
Bafumi said that the bill might “threaten voters not to vote” because they may be scared of possible repercussions and complications.
Despite the lawsuit and negative press, Birdsell stands by her bill.
“I’ve had quite a few people come up to me and thank me for putting in this bill, so it’s something that they think has been needed and I’m proud to do it,” Birdsell said. “I think SB3 has been vilified.”
As to students at Dartmouth who are looking to vote in upcoming elections here in New Hampshire, the Office of Residential Life will be working with the Hanover town clerk’s office to help students obtain the paperwork they need to prove residence here at Dartmouth, McClain said.
Correction Appended (Sept. 26, 2017): The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Birdsell ran for Congress, when she has in fact run for the NH House of Representatives and NH Senate. The article has been updated to reflect this change.