Voting bill denied in N.H. House
By Lindsay Brewer, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, March 28, 2011
The New Hampshire House of Representatives voted down House Bill 176 — which would have prevented students from voting in state or local elections — on March 8, according to State Rep. David Pierce, D-Grafton. The House vote followed the Election Law Committee’s March 2 recommendation not to pass the bill.
The bill, which failed 267 to 72, attempts to redefine residency for voting eligibility in order to return to the “basic principles of ensuring residency” and protect the “integrity of the ballot process,” according to a statement that New Hampshire Speaker of the House William O’Brien, R-Hillsborough, previously released to The Dartmouth.
The bill failed because treating college students differently than other individuals in the state is unconstitutional, according to Election Law Committee chairman State Rep. David Bates, R-Rockingham.
“You just can’t treat people differently under the law,” he said in an interview with The Dartmouth. “Whatever the standard is, it needs to be universally applied to everyone — people are guaranteed equal protection under the law.”
Although the House defeated the bill, it is “very possible” that the issue of the domicile status of college students will appear before the legislature in the future, State Rep. Bernard Benn, D-Grafton, said in an interview with The Dartmouth.
“These things have a way of returning,” he said. “Sometimes it’s sort of like Dracula — you don’t quite kill them all the way.”
Since the Election Law Committee decides to include provisions not relevant to a bill’s original subject in subsequent amendments, any of the bills considered by the committee this year can be amended to include information regarding domicile status, according to Bates. House Bills 356 and 515 — which address the issue of voter eligibility — are most likely to include additions regarding the definition of domicile, according to Bates.
“I’m pretty sure we’re going to be looking at the definition of domicile status, but it will not be for the purposes of making it difficult for college students to vote,” Bates said. “Neither the education committee nor Republicans in general are out to take away students’ right to vote. That was clearly the kind of concern that was expressed and it certainly frustrates me when it is presented in a partisan manner — that’s just utter nonsense.”
State Rep. Charles Townsend ’85, D-Grafton, said that since legislators have struggled to define “domicile” in the past, he does not believe the issue will resurface.
“The more a person tried to define domicile for this, the deeper in a hole they would get,” he said.
Representatives from College political groups said in interviews with The Dartmouth that they will continue to fight legislation preventing students from voting in New Hampshire if the issue comes up again in the future.
“I think that throughout the committee debate, the committee realized that this bill was a little too strong,” New Hampshire College Democrats President Jeremy Kaufmann ’12 said. “I think that legislators are going to continue to think about how to ensure that voters are really representing the interests of the state.”
College groups — including the College Democrats, College Republicans, College Libertarians and Student Assembly — openly opposed the legislation along with nationally-recognized student voting organizations. The three partisan groups collected approximately 700 signatures for a petition opposing the legislation, The Dartmouth previously reported.
Dartmouth College Libertarians Co-President Joshua Schiefelbein ’14 said that if a similar bill is proposed, the College Libertarians will continue to use the same methods to defeat the bill. Future plans include voter rallies, petitions, testifying before legislators and speaking with individual House representatives in the Election Law Committee, Schiefelbein said.
The 2008 election of Vanessa Sievers ’10 as the Grafton County treasurer — achieved largely through college students’ support — provided the impetus for the bill, Benn said. The Grafton County Executive Committee asked Sievers to resign from her position, stating that she failed to communicate with other administrators and had been regularly absent from government meetings, The Dartmouth previously reported.
“[Plymouth State University and Dartmouth students] had an overwhelming turnout for her and she won the election against a long-time incumbent Republican and that really angered a lot of folks,” Benn said.
College students’ right to vote in New Hampshire should not be affected by Sievers’ actions, Townsend said.
“I think it was terribly unfortunate that [Sievers] provided an example that people could use as a negative example of college voters,” Townsend said. “I don’t think college voters in general are naive and I don’t think it was the voters’ fault that [Sievers] was less than a totally successful treasurer — I think it was [Sievers’] fault.”
Sievers did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
New Hampshire’s Democratic public officials are “probably 100 percent statewide” against restricting students’ voting rights, Benn said.
“There’s a philosophical thing that says students have the right to vote, period,” Benn said. “But there’s, of course, the other side — there’s a good chance that they will vote for us, and we certainly want to maintain their right to do that.”
College Republicans President Richard Sunderland '11 said that even though the bill aims to exclude “the mostly liberal student vote,” The College Republicans opposed the bill because it was “attacking” students’ right to vote in New Hampshire.
“I think we could absolutely agree that the bill helps Republican causes, but there are two bigger issues to consider here,” Sunderland said. “First off, if these liberal students aren’t voting in New Hampshire, they will be voting somewhere else and second, there is a large disconnection between the national Republican Party and our 18 to 24 age demographic.”
Schiefelbein said the College Libertarians largely opposed the bill on constitutional grounds. The right to vote is “an extension” of the First Amendment freedom of speech protection, Schiefelbein said.
State Rep. Gregory Sorg, R-Grafton, who sponsored the bill, did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Staff writer Gavin Huang contributed to the reporting of this article.