CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Before testimony even began Tuesday on New Hampshire’s latest voter eligibility bill, opponents made their point during the Pledge of Allegiance, repeating the last words — “justice for all” — several times.
The bill before the Senate Elections Law Committee would end the distinction between full-fledged residents and those claiming the state as their domicile for voting. It is nearly identical to another bill making its way through the legislature, and many of the arguments presented to the committee mirrored previous debate.
College students and others can now declare the state of their domicile for voting purposes without becoming residents subject to other requirements, such as registering their cars or getting New Hampshire drivers licenses. Supporters of the bill say that creates two tiers of voters, and that changing the definition of residency will restore confidence in elections. Opponents argue it amounts to a poll tax and will have a chilling effect on voting among young people.
Betsy McClain, the town clerk in Hanover, said she has rented rooms to Dartmouth College students who wrote for the local paper, cleaned up the neighborhood, worked and volunteered in town. Such students are an important part of the community, she said.
“To those who claim students are merely tourists or visitors in our town. Nope. They care about what our town is and what it will become,” she said. “The proposed legislation tells them, ‘thanks for all you do to make our town what it is but we don’t want you to participate in how it’s run.”
Secretary of State Bill Gardner spoke in favor of the bill, arguing that New Hampshire’s voter turnout — which is consistently higher than the national average — is proof that New Hampshire is “the most friendly voting state in the United States.”
Unlike most states, New Hampshire allows election-day registration, and has neither provisional ballots nor durational residency requirements.
“As the rest of the country has been going in a downward direction, New Hampshire has been going in the other direction,” he said regarding turnout.
While Gardner argued the bill would not create a poll tax because someone can vote without a New Hampshire driver’s license, opponents of the bill argued it would make voters subject to dozens of other laws that apply to residents.
Liz Tentarelli, president of the League of Women Voters of New Hampshire, suggested the change could affect whether students are considered in-state or out-of-state for tuition purposes.
“I’m not a lawyer, I just had a lot of fun going through the (laws) for the last several months trying to figure out what this did,” she said. “And I think there are unintended consequences. I think you would be unhappy, or the state university system would be unhappy.”
Both the House and Senate have passed a similar bill, though the House hasn’t yet voted on whether to accept the Senate’s changes. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has said he opposes efforts to suppress student voting but hasn’t directly said he would veto either bill.
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