'Voter fraud' threat is a fraud itself

It's easy to make vague charges of fraud when you don't back up those accusations with factual, verifiable evidence. The Legislature does a huge disservice to the citizens of New Hampshire when it legislates on the basis of unfounded allegations instead of solid research and facts.

There have been allegations in legislative hearings and in publications that 'voter fraud is rampant' in New Hampshire. In fact, there is only one known instance of voter fraud in the past decade. That was a boy in 2004 who claimed to be his father in order to vote. He was caught under our current election laws. Investigations by the secretary of state's office and the attorney general's office after every statewide election since 2004 have failed to turn up any other cases.

Voter fraud allegations have led to bills that will make it so difficult for many citizens to vote that they will not even try. The most recent bill is SB 129, a proposal to take a photo at the polling place on Election Day of anyone who doesn't have a driver's license or certain other forms of ID and keep the digital image on file for 'law enforcement purposes.' Photo IDs can be used only to prevent fraud by voter impersonation, the least likely form. If caught, the penalty can be years in jail and thousands of dollars in fines. Because ballot clerks would immediately know if two people claimed the same identity, it's the easiest crime to detect without a photo ID law.

Every volunteer, town employee or elected official working at the polls on Election Day takes an oath to uphold the state Constitution and the laws of New Hampshire. Each has a legal obligation to report suspected voter fraud. Any election worker who sees voter fraud and allows it is guilty of election fraud. It's not hard to challenge a person's right to vote. Challengers can fill out a form at the polls or download one from the secretary of state's website and mail it in. With so many people at the polls legally required to report fraud and with such an easy system for others to report it, the idea that there is rampant voter fraud does not stand up to scrutiny.

New Hampshire has strict voter registration requirements. Unlike every other state, citizens must appear in person before an election official. There are no voter registration organizations in the state and no mail registration, except in very rare cases. New Hampshire has a statewide computerized database. When a voter moves from one town to another and registers to vote, the voter's registration is deleted from the previous town. Supervisors of the checklist are required to remove names of the deceased from the checklist, and the post office is required to notify towns when people change their addresses. Periodically, every name on the list is checked and verified. That will happen this year.

Some people imagine voter fraud when they don't know the facts. For instance, a physical address is required for registration and the checklist. If you send postcards to everyone on the checklist, many will be returned because of people who get their mail at a post office.

The state Constitution is unambiguous about who is allowed to vote: 'All elections are to be free, and every inhabitant of the state 18 years of age and upwards shall have an equal right to vote in any election. Every person shall be considered an inhabitant for the purposes of voting in the town, ward or unincorporated place where he has his domicile.'

People can have as many residences as they want, anywhere they want, but they can only claim one as a 'domicile' for voting. A domicile is where a person sleeps most of the time, keeps possessions, and considers the center of his or her civic, social and cultural life.

There have been several attempts since 18-year-olds got the right to vote in 1971 to bar them from voting where they are domiciled but the state Constitution and courts have consistently upheld their right to vote where they go to school or where the military has stationed them. If they declare that a previous place is their domicile and their education or military residence is temporary, they may choose to vote absentee but they aren't required to do so.

There have been statements that people are 'bused in' to vote and that, somehow, this is illegal. Since the days of the horse and carriage, campaigns have arranged rides to the polls. There is nothing illegal about getting a ride to the polls or providing rides to the polls.

Many people find it hard to separate a right from a choice. If you are a citizen, 18 or older, you have the right to vote. You do not have to pass a test or pay a fee, and no one can take away your right to vote unless you commit a serious crime. With certain limitations, states may pass election laws to regulate where a person may vote and to determine whether a person is a citizen and old enough to vote. A state may not arbitrarily take away your right to vote.

Getting a driver's license, getting a non-driver license, getting a passport or joining the military are all choices. Tens of thousands of New Hampshire citizens do not drive, own a passport or join the military because they have chosen not to, can't afford it or can't meet the requirements. Most are disabled, elderly, young, poor or members of minority groups.

New Hampshire has a much higher percentage of drivers than most states but, even so, there are probably 60,000 citizens, qualified to vote, who don't have driver's licenses. Thousands of other people have out-of-state driver's licenses but do not have a car in this state so have never gotten a New Hampshire license. There is no reason to believe that all of these people are trying to commit voter fraud, but that is what photo ID bills do.

SB 129 will impact people who have voted for decades just as much as it impacts new voters. It is an unnecessary law based on completely unfounded allegations. It casts suspicion on the integrity of every citizen in New Hampshire and it is very likely to raise questions about whether New Hampshire is a suitable place to hold the first-in-the-nation primary.

(Liz Tentarelli and Sally Davis are co-presidents and Joan Flood Ashwell is an election law specialist for the New Hampshire League of Women Voters.)

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