In fall 2016, there were 118,000 students enrolled in NH’s colleges and universities—the equivalent of approximately 9 percent of the state’s population. This is also a population NH is desperate to hold onto in a tight labor market.
And in the home of the First-in-the-Nation Primary, those college students have also been at the center of debate over election reform. A new law changes the definition of a resident in NH and will allow the state to require people to have a NH driver’s license and register their car in NH in order to vote. [Editor's Note: This story ran in our September issue. Last week, a judge blocked the state from using new voter registration regulations that require voters to prove they live where they're trying to vote. It is not clear if new forms will be used.]
Opponents argue that the new law is aimed at suppressing student voters by essentially creating a poll tax, which sends a mixed message to those students about NH’s interest in engaging them. Proponents of the new law say it further protects NH’s elections against fraud, brings the state in line with the rest of the country, allows students who are serious about being NH residents to vote (while other out-of-state students can still vote in their home states by absentee ballot), and does not impose any impediments to students who are already NH residents.
The Student Vote
While the new requirements for voting don’t go into effect until after the midterm elections, some argue that the ramifications of the new law could be felt in the next presidential race.
In the state’s four largest college communities of Durham, Hanover, Plymouth and Keene, same-day voter registration is well above the average of 8 percent, ranging from 10 to 19 percent. While not a direct correlation, it is likely many of the same-day registrations are college students. Meanwhile, in those same communities, among the declared voters, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2-1.
Todd Selig has been the administrator for the Town of Durham for almost two decades and has seen the transition—from allowing students to vote if they could show they were domiciled in NH, then if they swore an oath, then requiring a photo ID. “Now they want to include that if you vote, you have to do all the other things like car registration and driver’s license,” Selig says. “I would love nothing more. It’s a revenue source for the town. But this is not a discussion about revenue; it is about the fundamental right to vote.”
Selig, a Laconia native, says when he attended Syracuse University in New York, he voted absentee because he felt more connected to his hometown. “But that wasn’t always the case for my fellow students, and it is not the case for many at the [University of NH]. Students need to ask themselves where they have a connection,” he says.
Selig says many college students vote only in the national elections, but allowing them to vote in NH helps build a local connection. He adds that the sooner they get involved, the stronger the connection they will have with the community and the state. “They are excited to be here. For many it is their first election. It would be very unfortunate to take that excitement and turn it into a sense of disenfranchisement with government,” Selig says. “We say we want you to stay, but we don’t want you to vote. Those are very inconsistent messages.”
Attorney William Christie of Shaheen and Gordon, P.A. in Dover says one of the arguments against college students voting is that they have no stake in the community. “In New Hampshire the contrary is true,” he says. “Students are very active in their communities and many do stay. Why would we do something that makes it more burdensome on them?”
Defining a Resident for Voting Purposes
One of a number of legislative measures intended to tighten voting regulations, HB 1264 modifies the definition of a resident by removing four simple words: “for the indefinite future” from the language of the current law. Christie says under current law, a person needs to be domiciled with an intent to stay “for the indefinite future”—whether that intent is to stay a couple months or years—to be considered a resident. “If you are domiciled, you don’t have to get a license or register your car in New Hampshire. HB 1264 changes the description of a resident,” Christie says. “The impact is that anyone who registered to vote would also have to get a New Hampshire license within 60 days,” if they do not already have one.
In 2015, Christie successfully argued a case that led to a change in voter registration forms, requiring the state to delete the following: “In declaring New Hampshire as my domicile, I am subject to the laws of the state of New Hampshire which apply to all residents, including laws requiring a driver to register a motor vehicle and apply for a New Hampshire driver’s license within 60 days of becoming a resident.”
The trial court ruled that the language violated NH’s constitution, in part based on the four words that are now being removed. Opponents expect that the legislature will direct Secretary of State Bill Gardner to put the language back on voter registration forms, which they say will act as a deterrent to student voting.
The bill passed both houses on a party-line vote, but before signing the measure into law, Gov. Chris Sununu, who had previously indicated he would not support such a measure, requested an advisory opinion from the state’s Supreme Court. In a statement following the court opinion, Sununu said, “House Bill 1264 restores equality and fairness to our elections, and the Supreme Court has ruled the bill is constitutional while affirming that New Hampshire has a compelling state interest in seeing this bill enacted. Finally, every person who votes in New Hampshire will be treated the same. This is the essence of an equal right to vote. For this reason, and pursuant to my duty to uphold the provisions of our State Constitution, I signed House Bill 1264 into law.”
A Battle of Party Lines
U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, calls the measure an egregious attack on voting rights that will restrict access to the ballot box for students who rightfully want to exercise their civic duty. “The Governor sent an unmistakable message to young people in New Hampshire that, rather than listening and responding to their concerns, they should be hindered from democratic participation,” Shaheen says. “The Governor should have kept his word to New Hampshire that he would veto this legislation. This law is also an attempt to give credence to debunked claims of voter fraud in our state, and severely undermines New Hampshire’s reputation of civic participation.”
The primary sponsor of HB 1264, Deputy Speaker Sherman Packard (R-Londonderry), insists the law is not targeted toward college students. “It has to do with anybody that comes into the state of New Hampshire and isn’t a resident,” Packard says. “If you go to any other surrounding state to vote, you have to be a resident. Our intention is simple: If you want to vote, you have to be a resident.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of NH (ACLU-NH) and Fair Elections Center (FEC) say the bill is “absolutely targeted” at students. Michelle Kanter Cohen, counsel at FEC, says students have a constitutional right to vote where they live. “It is basically an attempt to prevent people, especially students, who live and work in New Hampshire from voting,” Cohen says. “They basically set up a poll tax, whereby if you register to vote, you are subject to motor vehicles fees and associated expenses.”
Both Packard and Gardner say NH’s voting rules were too loose, especially in a small state where every vote counts. Gardner says NH is the easiest state in which to vote in the country. “We are the only state that has Election Day registration; we do not have provisional ballots like 46 other states, and we have zero durational residency requirements,” Gardner says. “There’s no state in the country that has those three pieces and that is why our turnouts are at the top of the country. We had a U.S. Senate race decided by two votes, and 32 recounts ended in a one-vote victory. I know that one vote matters. I’m not for making it harder, but just making to easier doesn’t get people to vote.”
Colin Van Ostern, a Democrat and former executive counselor who is running for Secretary of State and hopes to challenge Gardner in the November general election, says Gardner should not lend support to such restrictive measures, and instead work to make voting more accessible. “It is important to understand the context,” Van Ostern says. “This bill is just the latest round in a long-running effort to narrow voter registration. In 2016, we enacted voter ID, in 2017 there was Senate Bill 3, which is now hung up in court, [that] says an individual must file additional paperwork in order to vote if they move within a month of election. There is no question that this is an effort to put a thumb on the scale of democracy.”
Allegations of Fraud
In Durham, home to the state’s largest student population, Selig says there were rumors during the tightly contested 2008 senate race between Republican incumbent John Sununu and his Democratic challenger (and now U.S. Senator) Jeanne Shaheen about buses bringing people in from Massachusetts to vote.
“Both political parties rented vans that circled the campus to bring students to the polls; some said Sununu, and some said Shaheen. They are rental vans, which often have out-of-state plates on them, but these were clearly UNH students wearing their PJ’s and UNH logo shirts, and just waking up after a late night at Libby’s,” Selig says.
Allegations of fraud resurfaced after the 2016 election, when President Donald Trump attributed Hillary Clinton’s NH victory to busloads of voters from out of state. Concord Attorney Brad Cook, who chairs the NH Ballot Law Commission, held a hearing on May 29 to “get to the facts,” as he puts it. “It was unusual, and I asked for it because of the ongoing discussion and President Trump’s comments.”
Cook says the result of the hearing was that NH elections are secure, supervised, accurate, and there is no “massive voter fraud,” or even any significant isolated fraud. Cook says it is not healthy for the public to be left with the impression that their elections are not valid. “We should have an understanding that everything is on the up and up,” he says. “I wasn’t surprised there was no voter fraud going on.”
But Packard says because elections are close and can be decided by one vote, it is not fair that somebody who “doesn’t have a New Hampshire registration or license” should have a say in the outcome. He also says he has grave concerns about voter fraud. “We have had numerous people come into this state and claim election headquarters [as] where they were living. All we are trying to say is if you come from Connecticut, Rhode Island or New York, then get an absentee ballot,” Sherman says. “If you have no intention of staying here, then why should you vote here?”
State Sen. David Watters (D-District 4), who represents Barrington, Dover, Rollinsford, and Somersworth and is an English professor at the UNH, disagrees. He says that since the founding of the republic there has been synergy between civic involvement and education. “When somebody starts to do something as a habit, around 18 to 21 years of age, they will do it for life,” Watters says. “We are trying to develop civic commitment, and voting is the most important expression of democracy,” Watters says. “I don’t think you can quantify it by saying, ‘if they vote here they will stay here,’ but it is not just about New Hampshire. Are we creating a next generation that will be committed to democracy? I think saying you don’t count and you can’t vote is an extremely bad message.”