For Dartmouth students who want to vote in New Hampshire in upcoming elections but are not residents of the state, casting a ballot is about to become more difficult.
Last week, Republican Governor Chris Sununu signed House Bill 1264, which requires that anyone choosing to vote in New Hampshire be a resident of the state. The law is set to take effect in July 2019.
Under the existing election law, college students — even those who are not originally from New Hampshire — can vote in the state because they are “domiciled,” which means that they live here for most of the year without officially being “residents.” When HB 1264 takes effect in 2019, non-residents will need to obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license and register their car in the state in order to become eligible to vote.
Supporters of the bill argue that it will improve the integrity of elections in the state, while opponents, including New Hampshire’s two U.S. senators and two representatives, assert that the new law is a partisan attempt to limit voter turnout among college students.
Government professor Linda Fowler said that under the existing law, it is relatively easy for Dartmouth students to vote because the town of Hanover accepts proof of domicile from the College’s Office of Residential Life.
“And now, the proof is much more demanding,” Fowler said. “Students have to demonstrate that they’ve made a commitment to being in residence, which usually requires registering a car [and] getting a driver’s license.”
Fowler noted that it is especially difficult to obtain a driver’s license in New Hampshire because of a scarcity of license bureaus in the state. She said that the two closest offices to Hanover are in Newport and North Haverill, each of which are about a 45-minute drive from campus.
President of the Dartmouth College Democrats Jennifer West ’20 said that she registered to vote in New Hampshire because she wants to have a say in the decisions that are made at the state and local levels that affect Dartmouth students.
“Students know on a personal level the intricacies and ins and outs of student life, so we’re very qualified to make judgments about policies that will not only affect us, but [also] Dartmouth students for years to come,” West said.
For Devon Kurtz ’20, who is a co-editor-in-chief of the campus publication The Dartmouth Review, the new law would prevent students from making decisions about local issues when they have little experience in New Hampshire outside of Dartmouth.
“We’re here usually 30 weeks out of the year — some of us a bit more — but we’re centered on Dartmouth’s campus,” Kurtz said. “We’re not centered in other residential areas where other people … live and work. We’re not a full part of that community.”
Kurtz cited the example of Article 9, a Hanover ballot measure last year that affected students’ ability to live in derecognized Greek houses. He said that many students went to vote on Article 9 but had no knowledge of other issues that were on the ballot.
“I don’t think we have that much interest in the Hanover community other than Dartmouth,” Kurtz said. “Students were making uninformed decisions that affect the people who actually live here all the time.”
On the other hand, West said that Dartmouth students should be able to vote on local issues that have an impact on student life.
“With issues such as Article 9 that directly affect student housing and other issues that have concrete implications for college students, I think we are probably the best people, the most qualified, to be able to vote on those issues,” West said.
Initially, Sununu had signaled that he was opposed to the bill — which was passed by the Republican-led state legislature earlier this year — even questioning the bill’s constitutionality. In May, Sununu continued to publicly oppose the bill and sent it to the state Supreme Court for an advisory opinion. On July 12, the court ruled 3-2 in favor of the bill’s constitutionality, and Sununu signed the bill the next day.
West said that Sununu’s decision to sign the bill was to be expected given his previous positions on other legislation affecting student voting.
“It’s unsurprising to me that he signed it in the end, but it’s frustrating and disappointing that he chose to betray his voters by telling them that he would veto the bill and then [went] back on his word,” West said.
Fowler said that she wouldn’t speculate on Sununu’s motives, but noted that he probably signed the bill based on a political calculation.
“Given the fears of a blue wave in the 2018 election [and] given how unpopular Trump is in the state, I think that pragmatic politics probably outweighed his dislike of the bill,” Fowler said.
Fowler explained that Democrats in New Hampshire often rely on student voters, given the state’s status as a swing state, and that New Hampshire college students may have played a key role in the 2016 presidential and U.S. Senate elections — both of which were decided by a couple thousand votes.
Although the new law will potentially decrease the number of Dartmouth students who vote in New Hampshire, Kurtz said that students should take a more nuanced look at the issue.
“I understand why people are upset; I just think that it’s misplaced,” Kurtz said. “Their political voice is not being stifled, but their political voice here is being affected.”