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April 04. 2012 11:43PM

Like the South, NH needs federal OK on voting

CONCORD —New Hampshire is trying to get itself removed from provisions of a 1965 federal voting rights law that requires the state to seek “pre-clearance'' from the U.S. Department of Justice whenever it changes any voting laws. Officials here say New Hampshire never violated the 1965 law, which largely affects southern states with large black populations.

Unless and until it gets removed, items such as House and Senate redistricting and Voter ID changes will need DOJ blessing.

Last week, House Speaker William O'Brien told the Attorney General's office that redistricting plans had to be in the hands of the federal government by Thursday to meet a 60-day window before the June 6 sign-up for state and federal primary elections begins.

“The submission for those plans is being worked on now,” said Associate Attorney General Richard Head Tuesday. He said the submission would include a fairly detailed description of the bill, its background and how it got to where it is, but noted it is still being drafted.

Its submission includes descriptions of the state and federal constitutional provision on redistricting, what is required for the department's statutory review as it relates to the protected voting classes under the voting rights act.

The submission will also include an analysis of how the plans are objective and not based on racial criteria, Head said.

The federal law was intended to crack down on discriminatory voting practices that barred or hindered voting by African-Americans or other minorities. New Hampshire is the only northern state on the list, along with Alabama, Mississippi and 13 others. Under its provisions, communities with 50 percent or fewer adults voting in a presidential election violated the act.

New Hampshire was caught up in the act in the 1968 presidential election when 10 small communities were identified: Rindge, Millsfield, Pinkham's Grant, Stewartstown, Stratford, Benton, Antrim, Boscawen, Newington and Unity.

Head said because the towns are affected by statewide election laws, any changes have to be submitted to the federal agency.

His office recently completed filing all changes made to election laws from 1968 to this year. For years the state ignored the federal law — outside of redistricting plans — and did not submit election law changes for pre-approval, and the federal agency took no action against the state.

All that changed in 2002 with passage of the “Help America Vote Act'' and the millions of dollars in federal money New Hampshire stood to lose if it did not comply with the 1965 law.

The state began the process of submitting all the changes in its voting laws and began asking to be removed from pre-approval.

In a letter to the Justice Department, then Assistant Attorney General Bud Fitch explained why each of the 10 communities should not have been included in the list of violators in 1968, noting many of them had only white residents and should not have come under the law's provisions.

Fitch pointed out other issues such as Newington's population drop of 1,700 people in 10 years and the fact that in almost every community, well over 50 percent of registered voters participated in presidential elections — including 1968.

“We recognize that New Hampshire should have made these Census and history-based arguments in 1972 and should have more fully complied with the preclearance requirement,'' Fitch wrote. “It can also be questioned why the DOJ failed to enforce the requirement of these laws in New Hampshire. Using resources now to pursue either failure to act does not serve the people of New Hampshire or of the United States. We respectfully suggest that the New Hampshire Attorney General and the DOJ spending tens of thousands of tax dollars to now pre-clear every change to New Hampshire law that affects voter registration or voting that occurred since 1968 also does not serve our constituents well,” Fitch wrote.

The Justice Department denied the state's request but did clear it to receive $17 million form the Help America Vote Act.

Since then, the state has been working through statute changes and submitting them to the Justice Department.

Head said once approval of all the changes is given from the Justice Department, “I anticipate we will seek removal of our obligation for preclearance. I do not believer there is any need under the Voting Rights Act for New Hampshire to continue that obligation.”

Secretary of State Bill Gardner called the state's inclusion “an embarrassment” for the Justice Department, noting the state should never have been put in that position. “That's why they never enforced it,” he said.

“It's not like there are any legitimate reasons for it,” Gardner said.

Current bills that would require federal OK include photo identification to vote and tying a voter's residence to car registration. Recently the Justice Department rejected a photo Identification law from Texas.

Claire Ebel, executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, said continued federal review is a good thing, “given the number of absolutely dreadful pieces of legislation that impact voting rights introduced this session and some regrettably passed the House.”


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