Bill would add new requirements to prove N.H. voter eligibility

  • Ballot counters sort through paper ballots from Farmington during a recount of the District 2 state representatives race at the New Hampshire Legislative Office Building in Concord on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Associated Press
Published: 3/7/2017 4:37:04 PM

A Republican-backed election law bill is drawing criticism for a provision that says local police might visit people’s homes to verify they are legally eligible to vote.

“This is a very hard thing for the League of Women Voters to watch, an attempt to change voting laws based on unsubstantiated claims and fears of widespread voter fraud,” Liz Tentarelli, president of the league’s New Hampshire chapter, said while testifying Tuesday during a public hearing on the Senate bill.

The bill aims to put stricter scrutiny on people who register to vote on Election Day, or within 30 days of its arrival, by requiring them to show verifiable proof that they intend to live in the state. Proof would include a driver’s license, evidence of residence at a university, a lease or deed, or a handful of other items. One provision in the bill says volunteering on a political campaign counts as a “temporary purpose” and, on its own, doesn’t qualify someone to vote in New Hampshire.

Backers of the bill say it will crack down on opportunities for fraud by verifying people who are voting actually live in New Hampshire. Republicans have long argued existing laws open the state to “drive-by” voting from out-of-state residents.

“The idea of the bill is not to disenfranchise anyone from voting,” said Republican Sen. Regina Birdsell, the bill’s prime sponsor.

No one will be stopped from voting on Election Day; if voters don’t have proof they can sign an affidavit promising to provide evidence of their domicile within 10 or 30 days of the election. If they don’t provide proof within that time frame, town officials could ask the police or local officials to visit their home or request that the Secretary of State mail them a voter verification letter. If someone’s identity can’t be verified, the Attorney General’s office would be notified, and prosecution could occur, possibly resulting in fines or even jail time if fraud is discovered.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the New Hampshire Municipal Association and several residents raised concerns about the police verification provision in particular. Other critics said the bill makes the voter registration form so long that both local officials and voters may not fully understand it.

“It’s now become a literacy test,” said Leslie Enroth, a former Sutton selectwoman. “In our country, people have died for the right to vote. Why are we making it harder now?”

Secretary of State Bill Gardner was one of the few people to testify Tuesday in favor of the legislation. He cited perceptions among the public that voter fraud exists as a reason to tighten up New Hampshire’s laws. In the 2016 elections, nearly 9,000 people filled out affidavits swearing their identity and domicile because they lacked the proper documentation, Gardner said.

The Secretary of State’s office is required to mail voter verification cards to everyone who signs an affidavit. Gardner said roughly 740 were returned as undeliverable. The state has prosecuted only a handful of actual fraud cases in recent years.

Gardner said he wouldn’t back the bill if he thought it would suppress voter turnout.

“You want as many people as possible to be able to vote,” he said. “On the other hand, you want a process that a lot of people trust and believe is working right with integrity and security.”

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