Voter ID faces federal scrutiny
Department of Justice to review
As mandated by the Voting Rights Act, recently enacted laws that require New Hampshire voters to show a photo ID at the polls and change the way people register to vote have been sent to the U.S. Department of Justice for review.
For more than 40 years, New Hampshire has been in a class of states, including Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, that are supposed to submit some or all their election laws to the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department for review before any changes can take effect.
The laws included SB 289 and SB 318, which were enacted at the end of June.
SB 289 requires voters to present a valid photo identification to vote in person. Those without an acceptable identification can sign an affidavit and later fill out and return to the state an "identity verification letter," the state wrote in one of its letters requesting approval.
The new law also requires the secretary of state's office to pay the cost of an appropriate ID, if the voter presents a voucher to the division of motor vehicles.
The law is expected to take effect this September.
SB 318 requires those registering to vote to identify a "domicile" and not just name themselves as residents. It was a distinction that opponents said had legal ramifications but supporters said ensured a proper registration.
SB 318 also requires all residents registering to vote to acknowledge they are subject to "laws requiring a driver to register a motor vehicle and apply for a New Hampshire's driver license within 60 days of becoming a resident."
The recently enacted laws also change the punishments for those convicted of voter fraud.
In each of the three letters sent last week, the state said the laws will have "no special or adverse effect on any person or class of persons protected by Section 5" of the Voting Rights Act.
Intent on stopping widespread disenfranchisement of black citizens after incidents including the murders of voting rights activists in Mississippi and the attack on peaceful protesters in Selma, Ala., Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. It enforces the 15th Amendment, which guarantees the right to vote regardless of race, color or "previous condition of servitude."
If a state had a "test or device" that restricted voting, and if less than 50 percent of people of voting age had registered to vote or voted in a particular election, then the state needed to submit changes to their voting laws to the federal government.
Poor turnout in 10 towns
New Hampshire came under the purview of the Voting Rights Act because of poor voter turnout in 10 towns in the 1968 presidential election and because a literacy test was still on the books.
The towns were Antrim, Benton, Boscawen, Millsfield, Newington, Pinkhams Grant, Rindge, Stewartstown, Stratford and Unity.
Had there been only poor turnout or only a literacy test, the state would have not triggered a requirement to submit all its laws that affect voting for "preclearance."
Until 2004, New Hampshire had taken no steps toward compliance. The state attorney general's office said it has no record that the federal government has ever taken any actions against New Hampshire for non-compliance.
The state finally started to "bail out" of the Voting Rights Act in 2004 so it could become eligible to receive $17 million in federal grants to pay for training and equipment for election officials.
It is unclear how much longer the preclearance process will take, but the state has sent more than 250 filings noting more than 400 changes in state statutes.
None of those requests for preclearance have been denied.
Preclearance is just one of several time-consuming steps in the "bail out" process the state has to undergo. Others include proving that no "test or device" to bar voting has been used in the last 10 years and that no lawsuits alleging voter discrimination are pending.
While the federal government has never struck down any of New Hampshire's elections laws, it has recently moved against laws requiring voters to present photo IDs in Texas and South Carolina.
Yesterday, in comments delivered to the NAACP in Houston, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder vowed to continue to block the new Texas law and likened its requirements to a "poll tax."
For its part, New Hampshire asked Holder's Civil Rights Division last week to expedite the preclearance requests filed last week.
In his July 6 letter, Stephen Pershing, a Washington, D.C.- based attorney representing the state, noted there are no known lawsuits challenging the new bills.
"To the best of our knowledge, this letter makes one of the last of the Section 5 submissions necessary" to bail out of the Voting Rights Act altogether, he wrote.
(Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or email@example.com or on Twitter @MAKConnors.)