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November 07. 2012 3:06AM

College students turn out in force to register, vote


University of New Hampshire students Nicholas Thimm, 21, left, of New York and Brian Van Dam, 20, of Bow wait in the new voter registration line at the polls in Durham on Tuesday morning before exercising their right to vote in their first Presidential election. (GRETYL MACALASTER/Union Leader Correspondent)
DURHAM - Students from the University of New Hampshire and Plymouth State University showed up in droves at polling places in Durham and Plymouth, many seeking to register to vote before casting their ballot in Tuesday's elections.

Durham Town Clerk Lorrie Pitt projected that as many as 2,500 new voters will have registered at the polls on Tuesday, nearly double the 1,500 that voted on Election Day in 2008.

As the clock ticked towards 7 p.m., a line of more than 600 new voters, most of them University of New Hampshire students, wound around the hallways of Oyster River High School.

Anyone in the door at 7 p.m. would be allowed to vote, Durham Town Administrator Todd Selig said.

In Plymouth, more than 115 students stood in the same-day voter registration line at 4 p.m., which snaked through the halls and out the front door at Plymouth Elementary School.

About 20 deputy registrars worked full time to review identification and swear in new voters.

"It's wonderful to see it," Plymouth Deputy Registrar Elaine Melquist said.

Plymouth Moderator Quentin Blaine said voting was brisk and proceeded smoothly.

Many UNH students - and a handful of non-student residents - waited more than an hour to register to vote, but took it in stride.

Most of the UNH students registering for the first time were unaware of a new voter registration law that would have required them to claim New Hampshire as their residence.

In the weeks before the election, the state Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision blocking the new law from taking effect before a full hearing.

Many of the students, including senior Jessie Schnepp, 21, said they simply missed the absentee ballot deadline in their hometown but still wanted to exercise their right to vote.

"It's pretty great New Hampshire lets us. I don't think a lot of these students would have voted and those are votes America would have lost," Schnepp said.

Durham resident Matt Tardiff moved to town a few months ago and was one of several non-students scattered through the line.

"I was not prepared for this at all," Tardiff said as he looked into a sea of students waiting ahead of him. His wife had registered and voted in just 20 minutes first thing in the morning, before many of the students had gotten out of bed.

Tardiff took the wait in stride, and said he was glad to see so many students at the polls.

"I would much rather see a couple thousand UNH students in line registering to vote than burning sofas in the middle of the street," Tardifff said.

Students also were positive about the wait, and town officials tried to make it bearable by handing out candy, passing out voter registration forms and clipboards in advance and regularly informing those in line about wait times.

They also reminded students that if they lived anywhere but Durham, they could not vote in town.

Election volunteer Loren Selig said one girl started to cry when she reached the registration table and realized she had to vote in Dover, but Selig said that was not typical of the day.

"It's long and kind of tedious, but in the end it's going to be worth it," UNH sophomore Tyler Collins, 19, of Hampton said.

He said voting in Durham, where he lives as an on-campus student, is convenient, especially with shuttles running regularly from campus to the polls, many of them provided by the Obama campaign.

Sarah Skilling, 21, a UNH senior, said her procrastination is what brought her to the back of the long line.

"I was just planning on registering the day of the election trying to save time, but it looks like it worked to my disadvantage," Skilling said.

The line for new voter registration in Durham grew longer as the morning wore on and more UNH students made their way to the polls.

Students from as far away as Lake Placid, N.Y., exercised their right to vote as students in New Hampshire after the state Supreme Court held up a lower court decision that blocked a new voter registration law pending a full hearing and final order on its constitutionality.

The law would have required everyone, including students, to claim residency in the state when registering to vote.

"I think it gives students a little more leniency and a better way to connect with where they go to school and what state they're in," UNH student Nicholas Thimm, 21, of New York, said.

Other students said they missed the deadline to vote by absentee ballot in their home towns and were glad they would not miss their chance to vote.

Student Michelle Ditomaso, 19, of Peabody, Mass., was one who missed the Bay State's absentee deadline. She said she did not really pay attention to the voter registration issue but just happened to find out she could vote in Durham.

UNH student Elizabeth Izzo, 20, of Lake Placid, N.Y., said she felt "grown up" being able to vote in her first Presidential election.

"I'm glad that I can vote here. I missed the absentee ballot for New York so I am glad I can still vote," Izzo said.

Voter turnout in Durham was heavy first thing in the morning, Selig said. It was steady throughout the morning.

PSU students Tanner Pelletier, 20, of Conway, and Becca Gosselin, 19, of Bedford, had been registered in their home towns, but declared Plymouth as their home so they could vote there.

Representatives from the New Hampshire Attorney General's office oversaw the process, which they said went smoothly. Several students could not vote in Plymouth because they live in Holderness or surrounding communities.

In Keene, a steady stream of voters cast ballots and registered to vote.

"It's amazing to see the flood of people who vote. It's everybody," Keene election volunteer George Scott said. "We could get up to 60 to 70 percent turnout."

The city is home to Keene State College.

New Hampshire Union Leader correspondent Meghan Pierce contributed to this report.

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