Sunny
67°
Sunny
Hi 80° | Lo 54°

House passes voter ID bill

Measure requires proof of identity

The New Hampshire House yesterday passed a bill that would require voters to show photo identification at the polls, by a vote of 243-111.

'We have an obligation to make sure no one who's qualified to vote is denied the opportunity to vote, but also to make sure no one votes who's not truly qualified to vote,' said Rep. David Bates, a Windham Republican and chairman of the House Election Law Committee. 'This provides a means to ensure that those who come to the polls to vote are who they claim they are.'

The bill has drawn sharp criticism from Democrats who say Republicans are addressing the nonexistent problem of voter fraud in a way that could disenfranchise legitimate voters.

'Voting is the most fundamental defense against a runaway government,' said House Democratic Leader Terie Norelli. 'It should not be more difficult to exercise our fundamental right to vote than it is to carry a weapon.' Republican-sponsored bills pending in the Senate would allow anyone to carry a gun open or concealed without a license.

The Senate passed a photo identification bill that would require anyone without proper identification to have their photo taken at the polling place and kept on file. But the Department of State estimated that implementing the process could cost up to $1 million.

The House bill instead creates a 'provisional ballot' process, where a person without proper identification could vote with a provisional ballot, then return to the town clerk within three days with photo identification in order to have their ballot counted. People would be able to get photo identification for voting purposes free of charge. Secretary of State Bill Gardner has estimated that 50,000 to 75,000 New Hampshire residents do not have government-issued photo identification.

The requirement would be effective in November 2012. Before then, election officials would ask voters for identification only to warn them that identification will soon be required.

Democrats pointed to numerous flaws with the process. Rep. David Pierce, an Etna Democrat, said the provisional ballot system would be 'unworkable' because of the short time frame between the state's primary and general elections. He said it could open the door to new types of voter fraud and worried it would make it easier to find out how individuals who cast provisional ballots voted.

Rep. Susan Almy, a Lebanon Democrat, questioned how the bill would affect homeless people who have no identification - and cannot get identification within three days because there is no nearby motor vehicle office.

Pierce said there has been only one documented case of identity fraud in New Hampshire in the last 20 years. The bill does not address domicile fraud, when a person votes at an incorrect address.

Pierce compared the fear over voter fraud to his 7-year-old daughter's belief that the bogeyman lives under her bed. 'She told us she's afraid, so we put a dust ruffle around her bed, telling her the bogeyman can't get out,' Pierce said. 'That's all this bill does, sets up a dust ruffle.'

Republicans argued that the perception of voter fraud is a problem in itself. Rep. Kathleen Hoelzel, a Raymond Republican, said constituents have asked her why photo identification is not required to vote. 'Whether fraud is there or not is not the issue,' she said. 'Our constituents believe fraud exists. It's a perception.'

Republicans said the process is set up to ensure that the right to a secret ballot is protected. Anyone who cannot obtain photo identification can receive a waiver from the secretary of state.

'You talk about a constitutional right to vote, what about my constitutional right and your constitutional right to be ensured only those who are qualified to vote are in fact voting?' said Rep. Shawn Jasper, a Hudson Republican.

Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan said his office worked with the Senate on its version of the bill but has concerns about the House version. 'We feel (photo identification) could be a useful tool in the polling place,' Scanlan said. 'The major concern we have in imposing a photo ID requirement is you don't have registered voters that are turned away from polling places without being able to cast a ballot and have that ballot counted.'

Scanlan said he worries that voters under the House system would be unable or unwilling to complete the process of returning to a clerk's office with identification, so their ballots would not be counted.

Republican House leadership supports the bill. 'Requiring identification to vote for the purpose of ensuring fair and ethical elections is long overdue,' said House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt.

The governor has not taken a position on the bill.

Right-to-work

The House sent a bill making New Hampshire a right-to-work' state to Gov. John Lynch.

If it becomes law, nonunion workers will no longer be forced to pay union fees to cover collective bargaining costs. But Lynch has said he will veto the bill, and the House does not appear to have the two-thirds vote necessary to override a veto.

'The governor does not believe the state should dictate the terms of a contract negotiated between private employers and their employees, which is what this bill would do,' said Lynch spokesman Colin Manning. 'That is why the governor will veto the bill.'

The bill passed the House 225-140, more than 40 votes short of a veto-proof margin. Two weeks ago, the bill passed the Senate 16-8 - just enough to override a veto.

The House originally passed an amendment to the bill stating that public unions no longer have to represent nonunion members in grievances, but the Senate stripped that amendment out. The House yesterday agreed with the Senate's version.

'This is a major part of the economic puzzle we're trying to create,' said Gary Daniels, a Milford Republican and chairman of the House Labor, Industrial and Rehabilitative Services Committee. 'Right to Work is a major part of the decision-making process (for businesses).'

Union members and state Democrats oppose the measure, arguing that states with right-to-work laws have higher unemployment rates and lower wages.

Several union members came to the State House yesterday to oppose the measure. 'It's going to diminish the ability of labor unions to represent employees,' said Steve Soule of New Boston, a technician who belongs to IBEW 2320. Soule said if right-to-work becomes law, he will have to pay higher union dues to cover the costs to represent people who choose not to join a union. 'It's like a welfare program for unions, requiring me to pay for people making the same wages as me,' he said.

House Speaker William O'Brien and Bettencourt supported the measure, with O'Brien calling it 'the single greatest opportunity to create jobs in New Hampshire that the Legislature will pass this year.'

Health care reform

Over opposition from the attorney general, governor and state Senate, the House voted to instruct Attorney General Michael Delaney to join a federal lawsuit opposing President Obama's health care reforms.

Delaney has said it is unconstitutional for the Legislature to force the attorney general to join a lawsuit, because it violates the separation of powers.

The state Senate passed a bill stating Delaney 'should' join the lawsuit; the House voted to change the wording to 'shall,' which would compel Delaney to join.

The House version also requires the state to return to the federal government $666,000 that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services gave New Hampshire to plan for a state health insurance exchange, required by federal health care reform. The Executive Council - made up entirely of Republicans - agreed to accept the money since if the state does not create an exchange, the federal government will do so.

'Accepting these federal funds would crack open the door to Obamacare in New Hampshire and begin a process that would be very hard to slow down or reverse,' Bettencourt said after the vote.

Rep. Gary Richardson, a Hopkinton Democrat, criticized the House for unconstitutionally infringing on the authority of the executive branch.

'We have an Executive Council made up of Republicans advising the governor to accept the money, a fiscal committee that's approved this money, the Senate of predominantly Republicans telling us not to overstep our authority and create a constitutional conflict, and we have a House that refuses to acknowledge any limitation on its authority,' Richardson said.

But Rep. Andrew Manuse, a Derry Republican, said Republicans were elected to oppose Obama's health care reform, which he said will lead to government-controlled health insurance and force people to buy insurance against their will.

'We don't want to do anything that will allow this federal law to plant its poisonous seeds in our state,' Manuse said.

The bill returns to the Senate, which will vote whether to accept the House amendment.

Installment loans

A sharply divided House could not agree on whether to allow high-interest, short-term installment loans in New Hampshire. The House voted down the committee's recommendation to allow the loans, by seven votes. It then declined to kill the bill, by a single vote.

House members rejected two attempts to table the bill, before agreeing to recommit it to the House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee for more work.

A large number of Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the bill, which would allow short-term loans with annual interest rates of up to 400 percent. A spokesman for Advance America, which has been lobbying for the bill, said the company will continue to work with legislators.

Rep. Tony Soltani, an Epsom Republican, said some regulation is necessary on financial activities, and current laws already allow companies to loan money to people who are able to repay the loan. 'If (the interest rate is) 403 percent, that's not a loan, that is a confiscation,' Soltani said. 'That is just complete involuntary servitude. That's serfdom. The person is bought into indenture and their only remedy is bankruptcy.'

Republicans who support the loans said people who need money to deal with a short term crisis should be free to make their own choices. Andover Republican Rep. Jennifer Coffey said often the only choices for people who do not qualify for bank loans are pawning property or getting loans online, where the state has no regulatory authority. 'The opposition would have you believe New Hampshire citizens need to be protected from themselves and are not capable of making informed decisions about their own finances,' Coffey said.

(Shira Schoenberg can be reached at 369-3319 or sschoenberg@cmonitor.com.)