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My Turn: SB 3 would criminalize legitimate voters



For the Monitor
Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Last month, President Donald Trump revived unproven voter fraud allegations. He told a group of senators that he lost New Hampshire last November because thousands of Massachusetts residents were bused here to cast ballots against him. The president offered no evidence to support his outlandish claim. In response, the New Hampshire attorney general correctly informed the public that there is no widespread voter fraud in New Hampshire.

With this “voter fraud” fantasy debunked, supporters of more suppressive voting laws have come up with a new justification for why such laws are necessary: They are needed not to address voter fraud, but to address the “perception” of voter fraud – a meritless perception that they themselves helped create.

This is precisely the rationale used to justify Senate Bill 3.

SB 3 is the New Hampshire Legislature’s latest attempt to make voting more difficult. It would effectively criminalize legitimate voters who cannot provide documentation proving where they live and cause government “agents” to visit these legitimate voters. The Senate will vote on this bill Thursday.

Under SB 3, a voter not only must be domiciled in New Hampshire to vote, but also must collect documentation of the specific acts he has taken to carry out his intent to establish a New Hampshire domicile. The voter must then submit this documentation to his local clerk’s office with 10 days following an election, or within 30 days in towns where the clerk’s office is open fewer than 20 hours weekly.

This might sound simple, but for many it’s not. There are classes of voters in New Hampshire – particularly those who are low-income and college students – who are more transient and often move during the weeks before an election. Many of these voters will not have documentary proof of their domicile on Election Day because they relocated shortly before the election. They may not have a written lease. They may not have a utility bill. They may not have yet have obtained an updated driver’s license. A homeless voter, for example, likely will not have any of these things, and there may not even be a shelter in the town where this voter most often stays the night.

SB 3 would hit these voters the hardest. This is because SB 3 deems such a voter who is unquestionably domiciled in a New Hampshire town, but who simply does not have the required documentation, as having committed the offense of wrongful voting/voter fraud.

You heard that correctly. These legislators don’t just want to require documentation. They want to effectively criminalize these legitimate voters who can’t provide documentation. According to the bill, wrongful voting/voter fraud is now considered to occur simply when a person “registers to vote on election day using an affidavit to satisfy proof of being qualified ... and fails to provide a copy of the document by mail or present the document in person to the town or city clerk by the deadline.” This legitimate voter who doesn’t have documentation can now be subject to a fine of up to $5,000. He will also be removed from the voter rolls.

Proponents of SB 3 have claimed that the bill does not disenfranchise anyone because “no one will be turned away at the polls.” This isn’t a credible claim. After all, under SB 3, if you decide to exercise your right to vote in the place where you live, but do not have the required documentation, you will be deemed to have committed an offense. The obvious result is that such voters will simply not vote to avoid the prospect of punishment.

There’s more. As the bill explains, if a person doesn’t provide the required documentation, the supervisors of the checklist have the authority to request “2 or more supervisors or municipal, county, or state election officers or their agents to visit the address (of the voter) and verify that the individual was domiciled there on election day.” So now, if you exercised your right to vote but don’t have the required documentation, you not only committed an offense, but you also will have a governmental “agent” pay you a visit. This hardly lives up to New Hampshire’s “Live free or die” tradition.

This brings us back to the fundamental question of the purpose of SB 3. The simple answer is that it isn’t necessary. No widespread voter fraud exists in New Hampshire. President Trump is wrong. To enact legislation that will have a disenfranchising effect on vulnerable populations and students based solely on a “perception” of fraud only serves to reward those who have been falsely cultivating such a false perception for political gain. If there’s a perception of widespread voter fraud, the correct and obvious response is to educate the public that no such fraud exists, rather than succumb to such a lie.

The Senate should not succumb to such a false perception. Instead, it should reject SB 3.

(Gilles Bissonnette is the legal director for the ACLU of New Hampshire.)