My Turn: Voting rights in danger

For the Monitor
Published: 3/7/2021 11:00:14 PM

Civic engagement is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy, and the record turnout we saw in the November 2020 general election is something we should all be proud of in the Granite State. Instead, we are seeing a record number of bills being pushed in the NH Legislature to restrict the constitutional right to vote – bills that impact every single eligible voter.

Nationwide, over 155 million people cast ballots last year, including over 101 million people who voted early in person or by mail. Here in New Hampshire, over 814,000 people voted last November, with 32 percent of Granite Staters casting absentee ballots, compared to just 10 percent in 2016.

A recent analysis by the Brennan Center found that state lawmakers in the United States have introduced 253 bills this year with provisions that restrict voting access. New Hampshire is not immune to these efforts. Lawmakers in our state are introducing legislation that will fundamentally change how we run our elections. Their answer to well-run elections is “let’s change everything!” There are bills to make it harder to register and harder to vote, restrict who can vote absentee, and fence people out of the voting community entirely.

Today, Monday, we will be testifying before the House and Senate Election Law Committees, which are hearing some of the most egregious of these bills.

For example, in the Senate we will be opposing a bill (SB 89) that will tell moderators to compare signatures on absentee ballot applications against the signature on the return envelope. But when a similar bill was passed in 2017, we at the ACLU-NH sued, and a judge declared a similar signature matching process to be unconstitutional. The idea is problematic for a number of reasons: moderators don’t have any training on forensic handwriting analysis and get no state guidance on how those signatures are supposed to be evaluated. Plus, during our 2017 lawsuit, the state was unable to identify even a single case of fraud that the signature mismatching process had caught.

In the NH House, there are efforts (HB 531 and HB 535) to restrict voting by removing the Qualified Voter Affidavit that is used by people registering to vote. If this bill were to become law, nobody could register to vote without documentary proof of citizenship, like a passport or birth certificate – documents that can be very time-consuming and expensive to get. Just last summer, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a similar provision in Kansas was unconstitutional and in December, the U.S. Supreme Court let that ruling stand.

In addition to being burdensome, this law is counterproductive and completely unneeded. We’re not aware of any investigations of non-citizens voting in New Hampshire, and certainly not anything on the scale that would require every single voter to go and get a passport or birth certificate.

The House is also considering another effort (HB 362) which is the latest in a string of bills we have seen over the years to keep students from voting in New Hampshire – even though students are as much a part of the state’s political community as anybody else. They pay room and meals taxes, drive on taxpayer-funded roads, and contribute to the economy. To say that they shouldn’t be able to vote simply because they attend school is not only plain wrong, but deeply troublesome. Our democracy should not disallow qualified voters from voting, just like we don’t disqualify those Granite Staters who spend a good chunk of every year in sunnier climates.

These bills are all premised on fighting “voter fraud,” but we know actual fraud is vanishingly rare in our state’s elections. Expert testimony from a New Hampshire court case reveals that less than one thousandth of one percent of votes are even investigated – usually fewer than 10 votes out of more than three-quarters of a million. Perhaps that’s why following the 2020 election, Governor Sununu said “Here in New Hampshire our elections are secure, accurate, and reliable – there is no question about it.”

Record numbers of Granite Staters showed up last November to make their choices about the government heard. We think that’s something to be celebrated, and that’s why we are opposing legislation that would upend our electoral system and suppress the constitutional right to vote.

(Henry Klementowicz is a staff attorney at the ACLU of New Hampshire.)

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