Bill Gardner

Secretary of State Bill Gardner

CONCORD — State legislators across the country are considering bills to simplify voting, and New Hampshire is no exception, with proposals to expand venues for registration, enhance use of absentee ballots and allow early voting by senior citizens.

Efforts are underway to bring automatic voter registration, vote-by-mail or the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons in more than 30 states.

In New Hampshire, a bill has been filed to enable people to register to vote automatically when they interact with the Department of Motor Vehicles, subject to an opt-out provision.

State Sen. Melanie Levesque, D-Nashua, last week introduced Senate Bill 7, the Secure Modern Accurate Registration Technology Act, aka the “SMART Act.”

It would essentially make New Hampshire a so-called “motor voter” state.

The Division of Motor Vehicles usually collects the information needed to register eligible voters, including name, age, address and citizenship status, in the process of creating or renewing drivers’ licenses or state identification cards.

Systems would be set up so the information is securely transferred to the Secretary of State’s office to be checked by local election officials before being added to the voter rolls by the supervisor of the checklist.

Such automatic voter registration has been implemented in 17 states and Washington, D.C., since 2015.

New Hampshire is among the jurisdictions that allow same-day registration, but Secretary of State Bill Gardner has opposed automatic registration, expressing a concern about the accurate and timely transfer of data from one government agency to another.

Democratic lawmakers in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Jersey and New Mexico, who control both the legislatures and the governorships, have introduced packages that include automatic voter registration, same-day registration and early voting.

A variety of bills

Other election-related bills working their way through New Hampshire legislative committees include:

A proposed amendment to the state constitution (CACR 5) reducing the voting age to 17 for primary elections if the voter will turn 18 by Election Day;

A proposed amendment to the state constitution (CACR 6) allowing any voter to vote by absentee ballot in primary and general elections without meeting special conditions

A proposed amendment to the state constitution (CACR 9) providing for independent redistricting commissions to draw boundaries for state and federal offices, rather than the party in power

A bill permitting voters 60 years of age or older to vote up to five weeks before Election Day (HB 535)

A bill requiring the state prison system to ensure that prison officials accurately inform ex-felons of their voting rights as they begin parole or probation (HB 486)

Nationwide, bills to increase voter access have outpaced election integrity bills, such as those that would require voter ID or proof of citizenship and would limit early voting, according to a count by New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.

Democrats in New Hampshire, with their newfound legislative majority, are trying to repeal both major election laws passed under Republican majorities in the past two years — one regarding the definitions of residence and domicile, the other regarding procedures for registration close to or on Election Day.

The voter verification law remains tied up in court, while the law defining domicile and residency won’t take effect until July 1.

First priority

The first piece of legislation introduced by the newly elected Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives focused on broadening voter access to the polls.

The Democrats’ bill would implement nationwide automatic voter registration, promote online voter registration, allow same-day registration for federal elections, end aggressive voter purging, restore voting rights for ex-felons, make Election Day a national holiday and take redistricting power away from state legislatures and transfer it to independent commissions.

The bill is “not going anywhere in the Senate,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in December. In an op-ed, the Kentucky Republican later called it “a naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party.”

But expanding ballot access is not just being introduced in blue states. There are bills to establish automatic voter registration, same-day registration and the restoration of voting rights in purple and red states like Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina and Texas.

After a decade of election integrity laws, momentum is shifting toward passing legislation to modernize voting systems, says Chapman Rackaway, a professor of political science at the University of West Georgia. “It’s the pendulum swinging the other way,” he said.

“This year is definitely different,” Rackaway said, alluding to the sheer volume of bills and bipartisan support.

“There are always some folks who are going to introduce legislation like this, but it’s not taken seriously,” he said. “We’re seeing more states introduce these bills than we have before, and they’re more serious pieces of legislation.”

Partisan lines

But there is still a deep divide across the country over the best approach to regulating elections. While this year may see some of the biggest expansions of voting rights in decades, many Republican lawmakers say they will continue to fight measures they see as overreaching or enabling illegal voting.

Hans von Spakovsky, a manager in the Election Law Reform Initiative at the right-leaning think tank Heritage Foundation, said there are hardened partisan lines around issues like automatic voter registration. Voting-rights advocates, he said, “don’t have the momentum that they think they have.”

Ahead of the U.S. census in 2020, which will allow state lawmakers to redraw legislative boundaries, gerrymandering has also taken center stage.

Voters in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Utah passed ballot measures in November to limit overly partisan redistricting in their states by establishing independent commissions.

New Hampshire is not a referendum state, but the issue is being tackled on two fronts in the state Legislature. In addition to the proposed constitutional amendment, House Bill 706 also calls for an independent redistricting commission and describes how it would operate.

Gov. Chris Sununu has taken the position that courts can be relied upon to strike down maps that create an uneven playing field, and there is no need to change the current system.

Most of New Hampshire’s election-related bills are still working their way through committee, with only one scheduled for a floor vote this week.

On Thursday, the Senate is scheduled to take up SB 153, establishing state holidays for state and presidential primary elections. The bill comes to the Senate floor with a 4-0 recommendation against passage.

Editor’s Note: This story’s information on voting laws in other states is from a Feb. 5 article by Matt Vasilogambros, with Stateline.org, a state and local policy news service funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.