On July 2, the New Hampshire Supreme Court unanimously struck down a 2017 Republican-backed voting law known as Senate Bill 3, finding that it “imposes unreasonable burdens on the right to vote.” The ruling is a victory for critics of the bill who contend that SB 3 had made it more difficult for college students domiciled in the state to vote in New Hampshire.
The unanimous 4-0 decision upheld a lower court ruling from April 2020, when a state superior court struck down SB 3 for “burdening the right to vote” and “violating equal protection.” In this month’s Supreme Court ruling, chief justice Gordon MacDonald recused himself from the vote after pledging in January of 2021 that he would recuse himself from any cases involving the Department of Justice from his time as Attorney General.
The League of Women Voters of New Hampshire, an organization that seeks to encourage active citizen participation in politics, is one of the plaintiffs in the 2017 lawsuit. New Hampshire League president Liz Tentarelli said that SB 3 was a long-awaited conclusion to the court process.
“My first reaction was ‘thank goodness, it’s over,’” said Tentarelli. “This has been going on for four years … the bill was passed in 2017, and the League filed suit almost immediately after it was signed into law.”
Tentarelli said that parts of the law were struck down before they ever went into effect for an election, such as monetary fines for forgetting to return papers after signing an affidavit to vote. However, for two elections, the law was in force, leading to confusion for both voters and some election officials.
“I remember talking personally to one of the supervisors of the checklists locally,” Tentarelli said. “She said, ‘We don't know how to interpret this line [of the law].’ And I said, ‘Don't ask me, I think the whole law is terrible.’”
Former member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives Garrett Muscatel ’20 was also a plaintiff in the 2017 lawsuit. He said his involvement in the case catalyzed his participation in state politics.
“Joining those lawsuits is really what got me committed to fighting to make sure that everybody who lives there got to have their say in how they were governed,” Muscatel said.
While Muscatel said that it was “great to see at least one court rule on the side of democracy,” he cautioned students against believing that this Supreme Court decision is the end of voter suppression attempts in New Hampshire.
“We can't let one decision distract us from the slew of voter suppression legislation nationwide and being considered by the [New Hampshire] legislature now,” Muscatel said. “[Or from] the increasing proclivity of the courts to gut the constitutional and legislative frameworks we have for protecting voting rights in this country.”
Hanover town clerk Betsy McClain said that she was “very happy” about the Supreme Court decision; she said that it will create a “much more straightforward registration process” for both election officials and voters.
“I was very, very encouraged that there was some common sense in the court system to finally squash SB 3,” McClain said. “I testified in December of 2019 to try to express a real-world perspective about how confusing it was to administer the Form A and Form B [required under SB 3] and to explain to voters the different nuances on some of the voter registration forms that would be implemented if SB 3 were upheld.”
McClain said that because SB 3 has been enjoined for several years, the current practice of state election administration will not change as a result of the Supreme Court ruling. However, she said that the “specter of it coming back” was what “scared” election officials, and thus the court decision was a relief. McClain also said that the need to explain the confusing forms to voters created long voter registration lines, which complicated the process for election officials and voters.
“As an election official, we want to try to make the voting experience as efficient and painless as possible,” McClain said. “And we found that to be challenging with SB 3 in place.”
McClain said that it is important for Dartmouth students to know their voting rights and understand the process of voting, even with SB 3 struck down. According to McClain, if a Dartmouth student cannot prove residency at the time of registering, they have the option to execute a domicile affidavit, which will be registered in the statewide database. Within six months of filing, students should expect notice from the Secretary of State verifying the location that the student registered with, from which point a student can act on the verification process.
College Democrats president Miles Brown ’23 said that he is “very pleased” with the decision, but emphasized that voting rights issues are still a primary point of focus for the College Democrats.
“[New Hampshire Gov.] Chris Sununu still remains popular across the state, and we lost control of the State Senate, the House of Representatives and the Executive Council [in 2020] as well,” Brown said. “Republicans still have a lot of control, and they are looking to continue to fight student voting rights.”
Brown said that a number of College Democrats testified against a few upcoming voting rights bills. One particular bill that students testified against, HB 362, “repeals the consideration of a student’s educational institution as his or her place of domicile for voting purposes,” which would lead to many of the student residency status complications that SB 3 proposed.
Tentarelli also cited a number of bills currently retained by the New Hampshire House Election Law Committee during the 2021 legislative session.
“Right now in the legislature, there are several other bills that are also trying to restrict voting rights in one way or another,” Tentarelli said. “And the legislature retained those bills and will start working on them in the fall. So we still have work to do.”
For example, HB 535 “repeals the qualified voter affidavit and sworn statements on registration forms for use in election day voter registration,” and according to Tentarelli, it “comes awfully close to what SB 3 was trying to do.”
Tentarelli cited fourteen bills in total relating to voting restrictions that have been retained by the House Election Law Committee, and added that based on what he called national trends towards voter suppression, students need to be aware of their rights.
“We … have legislatures across the country, trying again, to restrict voting rights,” Tentarelli said. “It's a very negative trend. Especially when we think about how young people really have the most vested interest in the future of our country, and they are being made to feel that their votes are not wanted.”