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Abandoning same-day voter registration could be expensive for NH

By KEVIN LANDRIGAN
New Hampshire Union Leader

December 17. 2016 9:35PM
Gov.-elect Chris Sununu 



CONCORD - When it comes to achieving one of Governor-elect Chris Sununu's top priorities - reforming New Hampshire's election laws - the Newfields Republican is presented with a troublesome bargain.

It's possible that he could convince the Republican-led Legislature to get rid of the state's same day voter registration law which he says is too "loose" and makes us more vulnerable to fraud.

But in so doing, he'll likely have to accept even more expansive and expensive access for the public to register to vote, a trade off which many of his fellow conservatives will not like.

"This presents a whole host of not only expensive, several million dollars to pay for it, but a lot of undesirable things as well," said State Rep. David Bates, R-Windham, who has authored more than a dozen other bills to overhaul election laws in 2017.

"I don't think it would resolve the concerns but it would introduce other problems."

Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Woodburn, D-Dalton, is the ranking minority member of the Senate Election Law Committee. Senate Republicans created this new panel to underscore how serious the GOP is about changing things.

"We are open to suggestions. We are open to changes. We aren't sticking our fingers in our ears, but we are skeptical given the accusations that there is fraud in elections," Woodburn said.

Dartmouth College researchers studied voting practices in three states and last month concluded there was not rampant voter fraud.

One of its authors said getting rid of same-day voter registration here will not make elections any more honest.

"Efforts to change voter registration procedures offer minimal improvements to election integrity while making it considerably more difficult for the young and the poor to vote," said Sean Westwood, assistant professor of government. "It is hard to see this as anything more than an effort to use an irrational fear of fraud to pass laws that reduce votes from Democrats."

Right after his Nov. 8 victory, Sununu said that "I would love" to get rid of same-day registration.

New Hampshire is one of 13 states that lets you wait until Election Day to become an eligible voter.

But as criticism has mounted to this idea even in some Republican circles, Sununu has said the primary goal is to tighten the laws and not necessarily to get rid of that provision.

"It's just about tightening the rules, and whether you're looking at the same- day voter registration, a residency requirement, all of these things might come into play," Sununu said last week.

Ironically, Democratic leaders privately admit it's likely that Republicans benefitted more than they did from same-day voting in 2016.

They say Trump motivated many to show up who either were never registered or had lost confidence in the political process.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner was a major player in the 1993 bargain to give New Hampshire an exemption from the Motor Voter Law by committing the state to adopt same-day voter registration.

"We made a big decision about 25 years ago that we didn't want the federal government determining the rules of our election process, and we opted with one other state to take action so that was not the case. So it would be an appropriate time this session to take a look back at that decision," Gardner told the Legislature after it elected him to a 21st term in office.

Labor intensive

The 43 states with Motor Voter are required to allow citizens to register to vote at motor vehicle offices and any state building that gives out public assistance such as unemployment or welfare benefits.

Bryan Gould, a former vice chairman of the Republican State Committee, is a veteran poll observer for GOP campaigns.

"With motor voter you have mandatory registration sites, but there are also a list of optional sites that states have to pick from as well," Gould said.

"There is a significant administrative burden from that, no question about it."

Senate Democratic Leader Woodburn echoed, "Aren't the lines at our DMV offices long enough for people? Do we want to make them even worse by adding voter registration to the mix?"

The most significant study on the cost of Motor Voter came from the Congressional Research Service, which in 2013 did a report approaching the law's 20th anniversary.

The finding was the cost to carry out Motor Voter varies depending on population.

For example with counties of fewer than 50,000 people, the report said the total cost was about $87,000 for each election while in counties of up to 1 million people, that cost would go up to $1.1 million.

These costs have proven to be less than what critics feared back in the early 1990s.

That's because contrary to those who sold Motor Voter, such as former President Bill Clinton, it has neither significantly increased turnout nor added greatly to the voter registration rolls.

"However, for whatever reason, this large increase in registered voters has not yet occurred," the report said.

If Sununu and the Legislature were to embrace Motor Voter, they have one pot of money that can be used for technology and training that would be needed to create multiple, new places to register voters.

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 was created to upgrade state election infrastructure following the razor-thin presidential election of 2000.

New Hampshire received $15 million in federal grant under HAVA and more than a decade later there's still an unspent balance of $11 million,

But Paul Twomey, former legal counsel to the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said having both same-day voter registration and Motor Voter would enhance participation here.

"This would save a lot of pressure on election officials on Election Day. It would increase turnout as well," Twomey said.

Residency requirement?

Sununu could accomplish the goal of tightening up election laws without incurring the cost of Motor Voter by pursuing a residency requirement.

Two years ago, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan vetoed legislation creating a 10-day residency requirement and the Legislature could not override it.

This could be done by crafting a bill that makes clear those showing up to register to vote on Election Day would have to show proof of how long they've resided here.

"Over 40 states in the country have either a cut off of voter registration or residency requirement that's over 20 days before the election," Secretary of State Gardner said.

There is, however, bipartisan support for another reform that would make clear that residency and not domicile controls who gets to vote.

Currently someone signing up to vote merely has to say New Hampshire is his domicile, which does not mean the place where that voter intends to remain.

"Literally someone can walk into a polling place, have in their mind the intent to vote in that town, vote and then walk out the door and change their mind," Republican election law lawyer Gould said.

"That is not illegal under New Hampshire law and you can see how that can be abused. "

The fix is an easy one, Democrat Twomey said.

"Courts have said you can't make someone commit to reside somewhere indefinitely. The change is to have residency apply for voting just as it does elsewhere in state law," Twomey added.

klandrigan@unionleader.com


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