Ballot battles

A bill approved by N.H. legislators rekindles debate over voter registration laws

With a presidential election on the horizon, New Hampshire lawmakers are turning their attention to state election laws. More than a dozen bills related to elections and voter registration went through the Statehouse this year. One of those bills is SB 179, which lawmakers passed on June 4. Sponsored by Republican state Sen. Sharon Carson of Londonderry, the bill requires voters live in the state for 30 consecutive days before they can vote in an election.

“We just want to ensure that people who are invested in their community, people who really live here, are really voting,” Carson says.

Others, however, believe the bill is unconstitutional and prevents residents from legally voting.

“Drive-by voting”
Carson started work on the bill after secretary of state Bill Gardner told the Union Leader that New Hampshire has a problem with “drive-by voting.” That’s when someone comes to New Hampshire, claims to live here even if they’re just visiting, votes, and then leaves.

“It has become a problem,” Carson says. “If you look at the number of recounts we have on any given election year, you see that (local) races are won or lost by fewer than 10 votes. So there are some real implications here.”

Carson says she consulted with Gardner while drafting the bill and that he came up with the 30-day requirement. Other states have residency requirements between 10 and 30 days, according to Carson. Voters who move here less than 30 days before an election could still vote by absentee ballot in the state they just left, she says.

“Think about it this way: If somebody moves here within a week of the election, how are they going to have enough time to evaluate the candidates?” she says.

Deputy secretary of state David Scanlan pointed to the case of Lorin Schneider. Investigators with the state attorney general’s office found that Schneider was living in Carver, Mass., but voting in Manchester, where he cast ballots in several elections. Schneider pled guilty and was convicted in 2014.

“When he was questioned by investigators, he said he did it because his vote meant more here in New Hampshire,” Scanlan says.

Constitutional questions
According to Joan Flood Ashwell, an election law specialist with the New Hampshire League of Women Voters, “there’s an awful lot” wrong with SB 179.

She says the 30-day residency requirement violates both the state and federal constitutions. Other states have deadlines for voter registration before an election, but that’s because those states tie voter registration to applying for a driver’s license or public assistance program (commonly known as “motor voter” laws).

“Because we have same-day registration, we don’t need a registration period,” Ashwell says. “If you move here 29 days before an election, why should you be prevented from voting? You live in New Hampshire. You packed up, left wherever you used to live, and now you live here.”

The bill also directs election officials to consider things like paying taxes, getting a driver’s license, and registering a car when determining a voter’s domicile, something Ashwell finds troubling. “When every example they give to determine if you live here has to do with financial transactions, I’m not sure that’s how we should be doling out our constitutional rights,” she says.

Changing definitions
According to Scanlan, “domicile” was chosen as the standard for voter registration at a 1974 state constitutional convention. “Residency,” by contrast, is the standard used to determine who should register their car, pay taxes, and so on. A person domiciled in the state doesn’t necessarily meet the definition of a resident.

That’s where the confusion comes in. Residency requires a person to plan to remain in the state for “the indefinite future,” while being domiciled does not. According to Devon Chaffee, executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, being domiciled should be enough to make people eligible to vote.

Carson says SB 179 makes the definition of a “domicile” clearer, stipulating that people who come to the state for “temporary purposes only” cannot be domiciled.

But Chaffee says the bill attempts to link the concepts of domicile and residency without equating them. “What it’s doing is it’s confusing voters … so they don’t know whether or not they’re eligible to vote or whether they can sign the registration form, and that effectively discourages them,” she says.

SB 179 isn’t the only recent bill with this goal, Chaffee says. “We’re seeing more bills that I would characterize as voting disenfranchisement efforts … and I would hope to see our legislature encourage people who are constitutionally eligible to vote to constitutionally exercise that right,” she says.

“There is this tug of war that takes place based on political philosophy.” — David Scanlan, N.H. deputy secretary of state

An array of complaints
A variety of complaints fall under the umbrella of “voter fraud,” according to assistant state attorney general Stephen LaBonte. His office is charged with investigating allegations of voter fraud.

Those complaints range from people showing up at the polls and finding their names have already been crossed off the checklist, to people spotting cars with out-of-state license plates parked outside polling places.

LaBonte didn’t have numbers on how many voter fraud complaints his office investigated in the last presidential elections, but he says the office took action in three cases.

Scanlan says he hasn’t seen evidence of “widespread” voter fraud, but adds, “there are instances in every election where individuals are voting improperly or in wrong locations for various reasons.”

Ashwell believes claims of widespread voter fraud are overblown. “The attorney general is very good about following up on allegations of voting fraud … they don’t ignore these allegations. They’re just not finding (it),” she says.

Tug of war
Legislation about voter registration is showing up more frequently across the country. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 34 states have passed voter ID laws (New Hampshire passed its voter ID law in 2013). And the legislation has become increasingly partisan. SB 179, for example, was backed only by Republicans. The issue has even crept into the 2016 presidential campaign. At a June 4 speech, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton criticized Republicans for passing laws that she says make it more difficult for “people of color, poor people, and young people” to vote.

According to Scanlan, election laws have been a popular topic in Concord for at least the last decade. The focus changes “depending on which party’s in power,” he says.

“There is this tug of war that takes place based on political philosophy,” Scanlan says. This year, he says, the majority of legislators feel voter registration laws have become too lax, allowing for potential voter fraud.

According to Carson, the bill won’t affect college student voting and will make it easier for towns to keep track of who’s on the rolls.

“Were trying to protect the integrity of our system, so people who actually live here in New Hampshire are the people who are actually electing their representatives, not people from other states,” she says.

From the League of Women Voters’ perspective, Ashwell says, partisan politics are beside the point.

“We’re looking at it in terms of, does it pass constitutional muster? Does it pass simple logic?” she says. “And there doesn’t seem to be any reason for this bill, other than to make life more complicated for people who want to vote.”

And that causes more people to stay away from the polls, Ashwell says. “Slowing the system down and making it more complicated does keep the numbers down, and it’s terrible,” she says.

Potential challenges
Chaffee points to a recent ruling by the state Supreme Court, which struc