DURHAM — The lawyer for a University of New Hampshire student who pleaded guilty to voter fraud in the 2016 election said someone associated with either a town election official or activists with NextGen America had told the Massachusetts man he could cast a New Hampshire ballot.
Attorney Scott Bratton of Lowell, Mass., said Spencer McKinnon, now 21, to this day remains foggy about who gave him that advice, which prompted him to vote in Durham on Nov. 8, 2016, after he had already sent in an absentee ballot in Dracut, Mass., where he lived.
McKinnon told state investigators “an adult” led him astray on Oct. 26 upon signing up to be an eligible voter during a three-hour voter registration drive in a dining hall on the UNH campus.
“Someone, an adult, told him that it would be OK for him to register to vote in Durham as long as he changed his address,” Bratton said.
Asked if McKinnon was aware other students got similar misguided advice about voting here in 2016, Bratton declined to answer.
Last week Attorney General Gordon MacDonald’s office confirmed an investigation into whether an unnamed, outside group engaged in voter intimidation and coercion in the 2016 election in the state.
State prosecutors refuse to say who that outside group is.
McKinnon was initially charged with a felony for casting two votes, but he pleaded the charge down to a misdemeanor for providing a false statement on his New Hampshire voter registration form.
For his part, Bratton is convinced his client, now a junior honors student in engineering at UNH, got caught in a political crossfire.
“I believe he became a political football between the conservative attorney general and the liberal voter registration officials on campus and in the town of Durham,” Bratton said.
Officials with NextGen deny any knowledge that a staffer or volunteer within its organization made any such representations to McKinnon.
“NextGen America does not register voters in New Hampshire pursuant to New Hampshire law. Since we cannot register voters, we direct students to go register with their town clerk or at the polls on Election Day,” said Olivia Bercow, communications director of NextGen Rising.
“In 2016, NextGen had extensive policies, procedures and trainings for our staff and volunteers to ensure they were educated on New Hampshire voter registration laws. We specifically include in our trainings and materials that you can only vote once.”
NextGen Rising is an affiliate of NextGen America, a group founded by billionaire Tom Steyer who recently decided not to run for President and instead to promote impeachment of President Trump.
The Attorney General’s office has not contacted NextGen America in this matter, Bercow said.
But Ann Shump, chairman of the Durham supervisors of the checklist, said some working on NextGen’s behalf in 2016 did give out “inaccurate information.”
“NextGen really means well as an organization, but sometimes their people can give out information that is wrong, isn’t accurate information. Our voter registration laws are different than other states,” Shump said of the group founded in 2013.
“They were a fairly new group back in 2016.”
As for McKinnon, Shump confirmed he signed a voter registration form on that October 2016 date.
The town official who witnessed it, however, was not one of the three election supervisors, she said.
Instead it was one of three volunteers the town temporarily named to have these powers to sign up voters so the supervisors could process the crush of students at events leading up to Election Day.
Shump didn’t discount the possibility that the volunteer either gave bad advice or didn’t understand what McKinnon was asking about.
“It’s possible she gave the wrong advice; she may have misunderstood what had happened,” Shump said.
The registration form McKinnon signed clearly states you may not register if you have already cast a ballot by absentee in any other state.
“The buck really stops at him no matter what was said that day,” Shump said.
It’s true NextGen officials weren’t allowed inside the dining hall where McKinnon signed the form, Sharp said.
But their staffers were usually right outside these venues or downstairs in the same building, Shump said.
“On occasion we did have to correct people what they were told when they would come in to sign up,” she said.
In the 2016 election, NextGen had more than 50 full-time staffers and “fellows” working on their behalf in New Hampshire, Bercow said.
During the 2018 midterms, NextGen made New Hampshire one of 10 targeted states to maximize youth voting turnout, devoting at least $750,000 and 18 staffers to the state.
UNH officials did not respond to an email request for comment for this story.
After the 2016 election, the Union Leader documented the unusually high turnout of voters in the college towns provided far more than the margin for the narrow victories statewide for both presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan.
This voter fraud case is the only one known to involve anyone voting in these college towns during 2016.
The state is prosecuting three others charged with voting in either Hooksett and Hampton as well as in other states.
In 2006, lawmakers made the crime a Class B felony and then-Senior Assistant Attorney General Bud Fitch explained why it was important to make this change.
“The one-year statute of limitations for a misdemeanor often presents significant time pressures when a possible case of voting fraud is only discovered or reported months following an election,” Fitch testified at the time.
Since that time, voting twice has had a statute of limitations of at least six years. This allows the state to bring any charges for voter fraud from the 2016 election until at least November 2022.