Legislators debate student voting
By Marina Villeneuve, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, February 25, 2011
Students, citizens and local and state representatives testified at the hearings for two bills — both designed to combat voter fraud — that would inhibit college students’ ability to vote in New Hampshire early Thursday morning. Dartmouth students, along with students from Plymouth State University, Keene State University and the University of New Hampshire, attended the hearings and testified against the bill.
The College Democrats, College Republicans and College Libertarians collected approximately 700 signatures in opposition to the proposed legislation and presented the petition as part of their testimony.
“This sends a very powerful message,” College Democrats of New Hampshire President Jeremy Kaufmann ’12 said in his testimony. “We’re terrified of the implication of government choosing voters rather than voters choosing the government.”
House Bill 176, sponsored by Rep. Gregory Sorg, R-Grafton, would alter the definition of domicile for voting in New Hampshire. The bill would mandate college students — as well as some military members — to vote in their hometowns and home states by absentee ballots, The Dartmouth previously reported. House Bill 223, also sponsored by Sorg, would eliminate same-day voter registration.
Students who register to vote in the state of their college or university cannot legitimately claim domicile, even if they pay taxes, Neil McIver, a citzen of Plymouth, said during the hearing. Allowing such students to vote results in voters who “don’t know who candidates are, don’t know what issues are,” McIver said.
“[Students are] vastly outnumbering citizens of town who live and work, have kids in school, have taxes in town — for me, domicile requires a little more permanency,” McIver said.
The “lax” definition of domicile in the state creates an environment in which college students can vote both in their college towns and hometowns, Grafton County Treasurer Carol Elliott said in a letter read by Grafton County Commissioner Omer Ahern, Jr., a member of the New Hampshire Tea Party, at the hearing.
Ahern said the current definition of domicile has a “great potential to disenfranchise year-round residents” of college towns.
Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, said the bill demonstrates a Republican-endorsed “governmental interference” in the lives of New Hampshire citizens. Vaillancourt said that although he is “convinced there are abuses of the system,” the bill does not effectively combat voter fraud.
“What this bill basically is saying, you don’t have a right to decide where you want to live,” he said in the hearing. “We need to make sure everyone is only voting once, but not decide where they’re voting.”
College students often negatively influence the “legitimate interests” of voters in college towns because they do not have long-term stakes in the future of the community, Sorg said.
Large groups of students voting can drown out the voices of long-term residents, according to Sorg.
Hanover Town Manager Julie Griffin disagreed with the assumption that the governance of college towns is impeded by student voters.
“As town manger, I help ensure the community is governed legally and respectfully,” she said. “I have not found Dartmouth students to be destabilizing in any way shape or form in elections.”
According to the New Hampshire state constitution, all state inhabitants 18 years of age or older who have their “domicile” in a particular town, ward or unincorporated place are eligible to vote.
Sorg said he wants to restore domicile requirements “to what it always was” under constitutional provisions. He said “weasel words” included in recent definitions of domicile have destroyed the meaning of domicile, which is “impermissible because domicile is the constitutional standard.”
Being domicile in a particular state requires more than a physical presence, as an individual must have a long-term intention to stay in the state indefinitely and establish a permanent residence, Sorg said.
The proposed legislation would be a problem for students whose parents moved after they went away to college, Rep. Shawn Jasper R-Hillsborough, a member of the election law committee, said during the hearing.
Numerous individuals present at the hearing, including State Rep. David Pierce, D-Grafton, and UNH constitutional law professor John Greabe ’85, cited Newberger v. Peterson — a 1972 federal district court decision that ruled the state cannot bar college students from voting in New Hampshire on the basis that they intend to leave after graduation. According to the ruling, such policies violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
Sorg said he had not read the Newberger v. Peterson case and did not “care” for it.
Rick Perrault, an attorney from Rochester, N.H., said he supports the bill and does not view the proposed legislation as denying students the right to vote.
“Voting by absentee ballot will not preclude you from being able to vote,” he said at the hearing.
Grafton County Republican Committee vice chairman Henry Ahern presented several letters from college students, residents and local lawyers in support of the legislation, which he said promotes civic responsibility.
As rationale for the bill, numerous speakers recounted stories involving students who admitted to voter fraud or failed to take the voting process seriously.
“I heard one female student say to another, ‘It doesn’t make any difference, I don’t live in New Hampshire anyways,’” Ahern said. “That’s worse for me than not voting at all.”
College students vote more often in national elections than local elections, Kaufmann said in his testimony before the committee.
“You can count on one hand the number of students who are voting in these local elections,” Kaufmann said.
Students participate in the local economy, volunteer in local community and educational centers and pay room, board and electrical bills, College Democrats Vice President Chelsea Stewart ’12 and Griffin said in separate testimonies.
Griffin said that town clerks have an opportunity to educate young students, who are mostly first-time voters, about election law.
Although the term of former Grafton County Treasurer Vanessa Sievers ’10 — who was elected with the help of a large number of Dartmouth students — was “not successful,” State Rep. Steven Lindsey, D-Cheshire, said that “people from all walks of life” may do “a better job [governing] than others.”
Many of the bill’s opponents said that, above all, the bill’s provisions would only serve to discourage young people from voting.
“I would urge the committee to not do anything to discourage young people from investigating and voting,” Claire Ebel, director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, said. “They will be the salvation of this planet and if we discourage them from voting — if we put obstacles in their path that would make it more difficult — we would do so at our peril.”
Carry Gilmore, a former New Hampshire state representative, testified that same-day registration received “strong bipartisan support” when it was first instituted in 1988.
“This legislation did not mandate cities or towns to use this in their city election,” he said. “I don’t think cities have found this to be an enormous burden — I think it’s made things much easier.”
The idea of same-day registration has “withstood the test of time,” Gilmore said.
If New Hampshire legislators eliminate same-day voter registration — which has been labeled a cause of voter fraud — they would have to enact Motor Voter registration, according to Ebel. Motor Voter registration — established by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 — allows individuals to register to vote when they apply for a driver’s license, ID card, ID renewal or change of address at a local Department of Motor Vehicles.