August 30. 2018 8:05PM

Opponents of SB3 testify that state's new election law will suppress votes

By DAVE SOLOMON
New Hampshire Union Leader


A courtroom full of lawyers listens as Louise Spencer, an activist for progressive causes, continues her testimony in the fourth day of a hearing on the state's new law governing voter registration. (Dave Solomon / Union Leader)

MANCHESTER — An advocate for immigrant families and a University of New Hampshire student activist testified that the state’s new election law would suppress turnout among students, the homeless and newly minted American citizens as the hearing on Senate Bill 3 entered its fourth day in Hillsborough County Superior Court.

The bill, passed last year and signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu, establishes new procedures for voter registration within 30 days of an election or on election day. It requires would-be voters to provide proof of residency, other than the voter affidavit they had been required to sign.

If someone trying to register doesn’t have the right documents, they have to produce those documents within 10 days (30 days in some cases) or face penalties for voter fraud, including a fine up to $5,000 and a year in jail.

A lawsuit to block the law from taking effect was filed last year by the New Hampshire Democratic Party, the League of Women Voters of New Hampshire and individual voters who claim the new registration requirements are onerous and an unnecessary obstacle to exercising their constitutional rights.

A judge late last year allowed the law to take effect, but put a stay on the imposition of any penalties until the lawsuit is resolved.

A full-scale trial on the merits of the law is still months away. Meanwhile, Judge Kenneth Brown is presiding over a hearing to determine if the entire law, not just the fines, should be put on hold until the lawsuit is resolved.

Louise Spencer, founder of the Kent Street Coalition in Concord, testified that the potential for SB3 to suppress voting has intensified with the heightened enforcement of immigration laws under the Trump Administration.

‘Heightened fear’

The Kent Street Coalition, formed in reaction to the 2016 election of President Trump, describes itself as “a dedicated group of neighbors and friends who hold common progressive values.”

“I have become aware in my work with the immigrant population that there has been a heightened fear since the increased enforcement of immigration, and many people are fearful of contact with any sort of government authority,” she said.

“Many of the immigrant families live in mixed-status households. Although someone may be a citizen, they may have family members who are undocumented. There’s concern about drawing attention to their families because they don’t want to put people at risk of potential immigration action.”

When questioned by an attorney for the state, Spencer acknowledged that she has volunteered and canvassed for Democratic candidates for more than 17 years, going back to the presidential election of 2000.

Attorney Cooley Arroyo pointed out that naturalized citizens had to interact with state officials before the new law was enacted if they wanted to vote.

“The concern is we are in a different atmosphere in terms of immigration enforcement,” said Spencer.

Recent UNH graduate Doug Marino, now working as a volunteer in the Congressional campaign of Democrat Chris Pappas, testified as to his experience in recruiting student voters on campus.

“I believe it (SB3) will deter students from voting. College students as it is are extremely busy, particularly first-year students, who are in a new place or on their own for the first time,” he said. “Even those who may want to register to vote may be wary of doing so if they have to sign a document that could potentially carry legal penalties.”

Long witness list

Marino said the requirement that college voters commit to a long-term domicile in order to vote is unrealistic.

“I think a lot of students are going to be hesitant to sign a document like that when they are really not sure what they are going to be doing a year from now,” he said. “When you have so much debt, it’s hard to make a long-term plan.”

Under questioning by the attorney for the state, Marino acknowledged that he had completed all of the tasks needed to properly register to vote in three different locations over his college career.

The witness list comprises 24 people, 10 of whom have testified so far. The hearing is expected to continue the week after Labor Day.

The Republican-dominated Legislature passed another new election law in 2018, HB 1264, which doesn’t take effect until 2019. That law requires people who declare residency for voting rights to obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license and motor vehicle registration within 60 days of registering to vote.

dsolomon@unionleader.com