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College students fret over election law changes

New Hampshire Union Leader

March 04. 2017 10:22PM

CONCORD - Nearly 7,000 votes were cast in the November election by voters who presented an out-of-state driver's license for identification, according to data prepared by the Secretary of State's office at the request of the Legislature, which is considering reforms to a variety of election laws.

But those voters, many of them from Massachusetts, did not travel on buses from the Bay State to influence New Hampshire elections.

The data reveals that most of those votes were cast in the college towns of New Hampshire, where students presented identification from their home state while claiming a Granite State "domicile" for purposes of voting. Some showed proof of their New Hampshire address; others signed affidavits.

And there's not much likelihood that's going to change as a result of the new election laws now under consideration, according to Dave Scanlan, deputy secretary of state for elections.

"The laws being discussed are tightening up the definition of domicile to address people who are only temporarily present in the state," said Scanlan. "An example would be a campaign worker who comes to work here for a short period before the election. They know they are leaving and moving on for the next campaign, but they vote for their candidate before they leave."

He points to existing New Hampshire law regarding voter eligibility, RSA 654, which states "A student of any institution of learning may lawfully claim domicile for voting purposes in the New Hampshire town or city in which he or she lives while attending such institution of learning if the student's claim of domicile otherwise meets the requirements."

The Legislature is considering changes in the domicile requirements, but not necessarily in a way that would disenfranchise students, according to Scanlan.

But the students aren't buying it. University of New Hampshire students rallied in Concord last weekend against the change. The twice-weekly UNH student newspaper and website, The New Hampshire, dedicated its front page and lead editorial to the topic last week, urging students to attend a State House hearing on Tuesday.

"The definition of domicile would be changed under these laws, meaning that those who do not plan to stay in the state on a relatively permanent basis would no longer be allowed to vote. With these laws in place, out-of-state students would no longer be allowed to vote," wrote student journalist Mark Kobzik.

Where is home?

Many of those who testified at recent State House hearings in favor of the election law changes argued out-of-state students should be voting by absentee ballot from their states of origin, and should not be considered New Hampshire residents.

"I went to school in Massachusetts," says Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro. "I wouldn't have dreamed of voting in Massachusetts. I always thought I was a New Hampshire resident even when I was going to Tufts University, so I voted absentee or I came home."

Bradley is a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 3, which is shaping up to be the vehicle lawmakers will use to craft an "omnibus election reform" package. The bill is up for its first hearing on Tuesday, as senators return to the State House from their February break.

"Nobody is saying they (college students) shouldn't be allowed to vote here," said Bradley, "What we are saying is, just show that you are domiciled here."

That confirmation could take the form of a letter from the university, a room and board invoice or a lease for an apartment. But it can't be any more cumbersome than what is required of any other voter, according to court precedent.

"A bedrock principle is that states cannot make it more difficult for students than for others to vote, or ask them questions that they would not ask others who are similarly situated," said professor Michael Hanmer from the University of Maryland Center for American Politics and Citizenship.

"You really don't know until the courts decide on a specific case," he said.

Hanmer and his associates have researched the topic extensively and published several academic articles, including one titled "Where Can College Students Vote."

"We did some survey work that showed the vast majority of students prefer to vote in their hometowns," said Hanmer, "but we also found that people who were not from a battleground state, but going to college in a battleground state, would have more interest in voting in their college state because there is a perception that there is more at stake . that it's more interesting."

The 'purple factor'

Given that Massachusetts could hardly be described as a battleground state, it's no surprise that many Bay State college students going to school in "purple" New Hampshire like to vote here.

Of the 5,903 newly registered voters who showed out-of-state ID to vote in November, 2, 246 used a Massachusetts driver's license; 487 used New York state ID, and 741 used Connecticut ID.

Nearly 60 percent of voters who presented out-of-state ID came from those three states, with the remainder scattered among another 26, ranging from New Jersey (208) to West Virginia (1).

The voting with out-of-state ID was concentrated in the state's college towns. Durham, home to UNH, registered the largest number by far, with 1,608 new voters registered using out-of-state ID.

That was followed by Hanover at 774 (Dartmouth); Keene at 624 (Keene State); Plymouth at 397 (Plymouth State); and Rindge at 214 (Franklin Pierce). Manchester, Hooksett, Nashua and Lebanon also reported in the triple digits.

All other communities in the state reported few if any new registrations using out-of-state ID.

Looking for commitment

It's hard to fault the college students for being suspicious of the Legislature's motives, given recent history. One of the bills proposed this year would have required universities and colleges to issue different IDs to out-of-state students, another would have required them to commit to acquiring a New Hampshire driver's license and auto registration.

In 2011, Republican House Speaker Bill O'Brien floated an unsuccessful bill that would have barred students from voting in college towns unless they lived there before enrolling.

"They are kids voting liberal, voting their feelings, with no life experience," he said at the time.

Allison Bellucci, a UNH senior and executive editor of The New Hampshire, says the election law changes, even if they only impose new verification requirements, will suppress the student vote.

"You'd have to do a lot of those things beforehand and students just aren't going to do that," she said. "Maybe some will, but most won't. I just think making it so hard and making it such a fight is going to discourage a lot of people from staying if they don't feel welcome, and if they don't feel like they can make decisions about the future of the state."

That won't help in the state's efforts to attract and retain young workers, she said.

"I've been looking at options for staying in New Hampshire more than I ever thought before," said Bellucci, a Connecticut native. "When I came here, I thought I'd be here four years and out, but honestly after this year of being so involved, particularly the politics, has made me want to stay more than I ever have."

State Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, lead sponsor of the election reform package, says a commitment to stay in New Hampshire is exactly what lawmakers are looking for.

"It's going to require that you show intent to stay," she said of her bill. "We are not targeting students. We are targeting people to make sure that when they vote, they vote in the communities they live in, and that they have a vested interest in those communities."

Students count in census

Durham Town Manager Todd Selig, a native of Laconia, says he understands why students from out of state want to vote in New Hampshire, even though he behaved differently as a college student.

"When I went off to Syracuse University, I viewed myself as a Laconia resident," said Selig, whose non-student population is outnumbered two-to-one by college students. "I registered to vote in Laconia and I voted in every election by absentee ballot. But if young people attending UNH view themselves as Durham people, rather than wherever their parents are living, is that a problem?" he said.

Selig said there is no widespread opposition to out-of-state student voting in Durham, where the student population outnumbers non-students two-to-one. That's most likely because Durham would vote mostly Democratic with or without the student vote, he said.

Democrats prefer the status quo and are opposed to the changes being proposed.

"Every single one of those college students is counted in our census," said Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley. "We receive federal aid; we receive the number of members of Congress, all based on population, and every single one of those students is counted as being a resident of the state of New Hampshire," he said. "We utilize them for every purpose except, oh yeah, when they actually want to participate in democracy."

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